Conley Becoming Master of the Steal

By Don Wade

The NBA’s steals leader this season, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, has his opinion.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, right, has been the leader of the team’s defensive attack, which leads the NBA with 9.7 steals per game. His 2.35 steals per game is second in the league. 

(Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The coach of the team leading the NBA with 9.7 steals per game, Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies, has his opinion.

They are not one in the same.

“People that get steals are gamblers,” Hollins said. “They’re gamblers. There are some really good defensive players that don’t get steals.

“When I first came in the league that’s all I did, was try to get to steals,” Hollins continued. “And I learned I was putting my team in jeopardy more times than not so I learned not to gamble so much.”

Paul, who from April 13, 2007, through Dec. 23, 2008, had at least one steal in 108 straight games while playing for the Hornets, opens a video he made for high school players by saying that he gets in arguments with people all the time about the art – and science – of making steals.

“A lot of people think the only way to get steals is to gamble,” Paul said. “I don’t believe that.”

So who’s right?

Both, more or less.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley’s 2.35 steals per game ranks second only to Paul’s 2.48. And when Conley was told that the Dallas Mavericks’ Shawn Marion had defined him as a gambler, also saying of Conley, “He reaches in a lot,” Conley smiled but took exception.

“I think it’s more an educated gamble than anything,” Conley said. “I study everybody’s tendencies.”

That’s another point Paul makes, saying that not only does he know opponents’ tendencies but he knows his own. And who better than a master thief to know the tricks of the trade that would be tried against him?

“There’s a lot of deception, a lot of anticipation,” Conley said. “You can look somebody off, make it seem like you don’t know what’s happening, almost get somebody to go back door so you can turn around real quick and steal it. I’ve done that a few times.

“It’s just the game within the game.”

And just as Hollins had to learn to pick his spots for trying to get a steal, Conley has had to learn how to avoid the whistle-carrying on-court police.

“It’s a natural progression and once you learn what you can and can’t do defensively in this league – the hand-checking and the different kinds of things you can get called on – you find ways to get around that and get steals,” Conley said. “I think I’ve learned a happy medium to where I’m physical, and then I can back off.”

In a sense, Conley’s education started long before he made it to the NBA. He grew up watching point guard Gary Payton, one of the league’s all-time steals leaders, and nicknamed “The Glove” for his tight defense.

“He always found a way to put a hand on the ball and cause disruption.”

Same goes for the Grizzlies collectively. Four players are among the top 50 in steals per game this season: Conley, second; Tony Allen, ninth; Rudy Gay, 18th; and O.J. Mayo, 44th.

“They’re one of the top defensive teams,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. “Very physical and the most dangerous aspect of their defense is they can turn you over and convert quickly. So you’ve got to be aggressive with the ball and you’ve got to be decisive.”

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said a team such as the Grizzlies requires that the other team do all the little things right.

“What it comes out to is you have to be very good in your fundamentals and your footwork,” he said. “You just can’t come out on the wing and think you’re gonna catch the ball. You have to create space physically and create angles.

“It’s not how fast you go, it’s how efficient you go.”

Hollins puts more emphasis on team defense (steals or no steals), adding, “You’re trying to close out the lane and make them play outside. When Tony’s in position and closing out his man, he’s not really gambling. Then somebody makes a poor pass and we get a hand on it, that’s really what we’re looking for – deflections. And steals come from deflections, not just going for steals.”

Conley says opposing teams often aren’t sure where to go with the ball.

“People are afraid to throw the ball to Tony’s side, people are afraid to throw the ball to Rudy’s side,” he said. “So if I’m pressuring, they’ve got three or four things to worry about other than running their play. It’s a headache for a lot of teams because we gamble so much and guys are good at it.”

Gay agreed, saying that just because one player gambles doesn’t mean there isn’t another line of defense if the steal is missed.

“We can try and get steals because of our defensive makeup,” Gay said. “We trust our big men to help. That’s what makes us dangerous.”