By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – It’s easy to forget now.
But considering how Mike Conley has elevated his game to match Kawhi Leonard’s dominance in this series, his performances are even more remarkable when reminded this is still the same season the Grizzlies’ catalyst essentially broke his back a few months ago.
Conley’s now carrying the Grizzlies on that same back, still not completely healed from three fractured vertebrae suffered in a fall and collision on Nov. 28 against Charlotte. Conley’s steady evolution through these first four brutal games against the Spurs has made this the most prolific and impressive postseason series of his 10-year NBA career.
Yes, so far it tops the fractured face comeback two years ago against the Warriors for one reason. The Grizzlies actually have a legit chance to finish the job this time around. And Conley isn’t playing through cobwebs. He’s as clear and locked in now as he’s ever been.
Just consider the progression. Conley enters Game 5 on Tuesday in San Antonio coming off a career-high 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 42 minutes during Saturday’s 110-108 overtime victory. He made the game-tying shot in regulation to force the extra period, then set up Marc Gasol for the game-winning basket that rallied the Grizzlies from a 0-2 deficit to tie the series.
Mike Conley delivers a new Grizzlies franchise postseason single-game record with 35 points against the Spurs in Game 4.
What’s obvious is the Grizzlies are ineffective at just about everything when Conley is not on the floor. Memphis’ net rating in the 143 minutes Conley has played in this series is a plus-4.2, compared with a minus-44.7 in the 54 minutes he’s been on the bench.
Taking that for data is equal parts amazing and alarming.
What’s not widely known is the burden Conley’s body is enduring as he pushes his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame up and down the court, in and out of the lane, game in and game out during the most physical, intense and competitive series in the playoffs. Fans see the points, assists and swagger. They don’t witness the late hours with trainers, rotating dips in ice and hot tubs, the rehydration therapy and more.
The past few days, getting back into this series, is the hardest we’ve worked all season.
“The past few days, getting back into this series, is the hardest we’ve worked all season,” Conley said. “You’re pushing your body to the absolute limit, because you want it more than anything right now.”
Yet, Conley makes it look easy when he’s averaging 24 points, 7.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals against the Spurs. He’s shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 48 percent from three-point range. Every number in those stat departments is a significant increase from Conley’s solid season averages.
Since a frustrating, 5-for-14 shooting performance in a Game 1 blowout loss, Conley has methodically dissected the defensive tactics of Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich. His impact and production have increased each game along the way. Conley is figuring things out each possession, every quarter and throughout the course of these games the way LeBron James did in 2013, when Popovich’s defense initially threw him off his game before he regrouped and dispatched the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale was an assistant with the Heat for those postseason battles with the Spurs, and has drawn lessons from what he learned. He’s also seen Conley make the LeBron mental leap.
In other words, Popovich is a master at throwing wrinkles into the mix to take an opposing team’s most dangerous player out of his comfort zone. Much like LeBron did then, Conley is ironing out the kinks. But no one does it alone. It’s required a team-wide effort to get the Grizzlies back into the series, now with a realistic shot to shake up the NBA postseason with a potential first-round upset.
Gasol delivered a career-high 32 points in Game 1, and then dropped the dagger in the final seconds on a runner in the lane to win Game 4. Fizdale laid the psychological framework with a postgame rant after Game 2 that netted a $30,000 league fine for criticizing the officiating, but also set a defiant tone that this team and this town wouldn’t back down from anybody.
Zach Randolph infused the lineup with a rugged brawler who has battered Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee to level the playing field in the paint. Rookies Andrew Harrison and Wayne Selden have grown up and shown up, once liabilities and now reliable relief options, unafraid of the playoff stage.
JaMychal Green and Troy Daniels, who saw roles reduced earlier in the series, combined to knock down four of six three-pointers in Game 4, when the Grizzlies outperformed one of the NBA’s best shooting teams from beyond the arc. And James Ennis has frantically and relentlessly run the floor the past three games as if his feet were on fire while defending Leoanrd.
The Grizzlies are back in this series because they’re playing harder. Hard enough to overcome a franchise playoff record 23 turnovers that handed the Spurs 31 points in Game 4. They’re fighting, but not to prove anything to anyone who believed San Antonio would continue its postseason dominance over an opponent it had defeated 10 straight times before Memphis’ Game 3 breakthrough.
The Grizzlies are proving to themselves that they belong here.
This is when you’re reminded how this team won their first two matchups with Golden State, including battling back from a 24-point deficit on the road in January. This is when you recall the source of Memphis’ resilience, fortified during a season when injuries forced Fizdale to use 26 different starting lineups. This is when it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Grizzlies are looking eye-to-eye in the face of the Spurs despite also seeing their All-NBA defender, Tony Allen, and biggest incoming free agent, Chandler Parsons, respectively sidelined for the series and season with injuries.
Considering all of that adversity the Grizzlies have overcome, it’s easy to overlooked what Conley has endured to steer them to this point. Fizdale had a message for those still debating whether Conley has lived up to the five-year, $153 million contract he signed in July that was the richest deal in NBA history.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Fizdale said. “I don’t think we will be having a discussion about how much money he’s worth. The guy’s a superstar. You’ve watched it happen this year, but now you’re watching it on the biggest stage, with the biggest lights. And he’s really risen to the occasion.”
That resurrection started the moment Conley’s teammates helped him to his feet that November night. It continued when he used his latest All-Star selection snub as fuel to close out the highest-scoring and best-shooting season of his career. And it’s within his own rise that Conley has lifted the Grizzlies.
You’re seeing a different Conley in the process. It’s a meaner Mike. He’s growling at defenders struggling to stop him. It’s a more spirited Mike. He’s flailing his arms and cupping his hand behind his ear to beckon the home crowd to raise their intensity and noise inside FedExForum.
One moment, he’s the Conley you always knew.
The next, he’s rivaling Kawhi’s status as an unstoppable basketball cyborg.
When the series shifted to Memphis, Conley first helped the Grizzlies prove they could again win a playoff game against these Spurs. Then, he helped prove they have what it takes to possibly win a series.
Just like in 2011.
But the Grizzlies will need even more from Conley to move beyond threatening the mighty Spurs to completely thwarting them. He senses the level of desperation required.
“Every game is like our last game, like we are going home (if we lose),” Conley said. “When we are playing at that level, it takes a lot out of you, but that’s the only way you’re going to beat the Spurs. You are going to have to be connected … because they are going to be throwing punches.”
Perhaps no one has taken more blows this season than Conley.
No one has gotten up off the floor to counter as often, either.
That’s exactly how the Grizzlies have made this a series.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.