Before he gingerly walked out of the locker room earlier this week after the Grizzlies’ first home loss of the season, Conley slowly gathered his thoughts and his belongings. He then tried to think back to a time when his normally deft shooting touch has disowned him quite like this.
“If I had been in one, I don’t recall it,” the Grizzlies’ catalyst said of his current slump on offense. “I don’t even think about it. I always just move on to the next game. You know, it’s tough. But tough times don’t last. I’ll get through it. I know my teammates will help me through it and it will turn around.”
Conley’s next shot to emerge from both his early season foot soreness and shooting struggles comes as soon as this weekend, when the Grizzlies start a five-game trip against the Clippers on Saturday and the Lakers on Sunday. Through seven games, Conley is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field overall and 26.1 percent on three-pointers.
Those numbers represent the worst level of accuracy of his 11-year career – by far. But it’s also a limited sample size and can easily be attributed to several mitigating factors that have impacted his production. The bottom line, however, is that Conley refuses to make excuses or embrace sympathy for his slump.
You see the shots he’s getting? Those are Mike Conley shots – those open threes, some of those layups… I’m not worried about Mike at all. Once we move a little more into the season, he’s going to start hitting those.
That doesn’t dismiss the fact that there are legitimate factors in play.
First and foremost, Conley is a bit banged up. On Tuesday, coach David Fizdale confirmed after practice that Conley has been managing some soreness and discomfort in his left Achilles. Fizdale suggested that pushing through the initial discomfort will continue to be a process for Conley as he adjusts to the normal physical demands of the season.
Conley sat out of Wednesday’s game against Orlando and continues to get treatment throughout the day to combat the soreness in his foot. By sitting out Wednesday, Conley will presumably have had four days of rest and treatment before his status would be addressed entering Saturday’s game.
“Once Mike is feeling better, we’re going to see a lot better basketball out of him,” Fizdale said. “Right now, he’s just fighting through nagging pain and stuff you can’t control. It’s always going to be his Achilles. It’s going to be sore. Sometimes it feels better than other times. It’s just getting back into the competition, doing it every day again and getting through that threshold of pain. Once he gets to a certain number of games, he gets his legs under him and feels better.”
Conley initially suffered the left Achilles injury midway through the 2015-16 season and missed the final 20 games with tendinitis. He came back for the most productive campaign of his career last season, when he averaged 20.5 points, shot 46 percent from the field and 40.8 percent on threes in 69 games.
Fizdale said Conley experienced a similar stretch of soreness in the same area during last year’s training camp and early into that season before he worked through the discomfort. That appears to be the same expectation this season for Conley.
Conley had arguably his worst shooting performance of the season in the 104-99 loss to the Hornets on Monday, when he missed 14 of 18 attempts from the field, including all seven shots from three-point range. He had a similar display in the second game of the season in a win against Golden State, when he misfired on 11 of 14 shots and was just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc.
“I’m getting pretty good looks, man,” Conley said after Monday’s game. “But you’ve got to keep shooting them. They’ll fall. My teammates are confident in me and my coaches are confident in me. It’s just a little frustrating, but I’m going to get it going.”
Lineup changes and rotation tweaks during games have also created challenges. While the Grizzlies’ second unit of Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons and Brandan Wright has thrived so far this season, the starters as a whole have been consistently inconsistent.
Conley and Marc Gasol have opened games alongside Andrew Harrison, James Ennis III and Jarell Martin in Fizdale’s attempt to establish balance on both units until key rotation players JaMychal Green (ankle), Wayne Selden (quad) and Ben McLemore (foot) return from injuries at some point in November. Gasol insisted he isn’t worried about Conley’s play and said they’re adjusting to new concepts and personnel.
“I think he’s been aggressive,” said Gasol, who has also been dealing with a sore ankle in recent days. “I think he’s trying to get good shots. I understand with the spacing and the way we play, it’s easy to be just lost in the shuffle a lot of times, because there’s so much freedom. But that’s the way it is.”
When Conley has struggled with his shot in the past, he typically found comfort and confidence going to the rim. But finding success in the paint has also been difficult so far, which, in part, could be the result of problems generating balance or lift off his left foot.
Through seven games, Conley is shooting just 48.3 percent on attempts within five feet of the basket and has had six shots blocked, according to advanced NBA statistics. By comparison, he shot 60.4 percent on attempts in the paint last season and had his shot blocked just 26 times in 69 games.
Perhaps the biggest frustration has come when Conley steps up to take free throws when technical fouls are called on opposing teams. Generally, those have been opportunities at the line for shooters to generate rhythm and confidence from seeing the ball go into the basket.
These days, that’s even been an adventure for Conley.
“I’ve just got to stay more focused,” Conley said. “When I do get there and get my opportunities, I’ve missed a few, just trying to get myself going. So, you know, I’ve just got to continue to get the reps up in practice, continue to work and eventually it’ll have to come.”
The belief and patience are there from teammates and coaches.
“You see the shots he’s getting? Those are Mike Conley shots – those open threes, some of those layups,” Fizdale added. “I don’t think it’s anything systematically we have to do. I just think he’ll settle in and those shots will start falling for him. He’s uncharacteristically missing some free throws right now that he normally makes, but it’s a long season. I’m not worried about Mike at all. Once we move a little more into the season, he’s going to start hitting those.”
Conley has established a reputation for battling through ailments and issues like few others in the league. He ultimately figures it out. Doesn’t matter if it’s a broken face, a broken back or a broken shot.
For him, this might be a forgetful stretch to start the season.
But remember this: whether it’s numbers or nagging issues, Conley’s never down for long.
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