The question came at Lionel Hollins as a compliment, the way many questions after dramatic victories do.
The Grizzlies had just beaten the San Antonio Spurs, 92-90, at a rowdy FedExForum on a driving layup by point guard Mike Conley for the team’s 50th win – tying the franchise record. So the coach was asked to explain his team’s “resiliency.”
“I don’t want to give our team any ‘extra credit.’ That’s competitive sports,” Hollins said. “If you’re a competitor, you’re always fighting back. If you’re a winner, and you have a winning attitude, that’s what you do.”
And Conley is the perfect example. His franchise-record streak of making at least one steal in 64 consecutive games also ended this night and he cared not one bit.
“I’m happy with stealing the game and not the ball,” Conley said, grinning.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins talks with guard Mike Conley, who has stepped up his game this season. His latest achievement – scoring the tying and go-ahead baskets in a win over San Antonio.
(Photo: AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
And yes, this was a stolen victory – even though the Spurs were without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. The Grizzlies’ only lead of the second half came when Conley hit that layup with 0.6 seconds left. In fact, with 30.7 seconds to play, the Grizz were still down 3 when guard Jerryd Bayless, who scored 8 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, started driving left.
“They load so much to one side of the court, so I just tried to bait them,” Bayless explained.
When the Spurs took the bait, Bayless kicked the ball back out to Conley for a wide-open 3. He knocked it down (Conley scored a team-high 23 points) and the score was tied, 90-90.
“That 3-pointer was more important than the game-winner,” said the Grizz’s Tayshaun Prince.
As for the game-winner …
“Conley made a great shot,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “A lot of times in the NBA that’s what does it, decisions down the stretch.”
Also, decisions made in the fire. Which is the only way to describe Hollins’ insistence on sticking with the 2007 first-round draft pick amid literally years of criticism. When the Grizzlies came within a game of the Western Conference Finals two years ago, people realized Conley was a “legitimate” NBA point guard.
Now, in the post-Rudy Gay Era, Conley is recognized as a complete offensive commodity – playmaker and scorer – as well as a specialist at the art of the steal.
“He’s definitely in the top 10 (point guards),” said the Spurs’ Tony Parker, who ought to know.
“He becomes a better player every year,” Popovich said. “He is more confident. He has expanded his game.”
Conley worked hard to gain strength over the offseason to better absorb the possession-by-possession and night-in-and-night-out punishment of the NBA season. The results showed in his game-winning drive.
“A year or two ago I might have fallen,” Conley said. “I might have been tripped up and not able to stay on my feet and not concentrate on finishing at the rim.”
Instead, when Conley “saw a gap,” he darted through and past Spurs guard Danny Green, taking the contact and yet still lofting the ball high off the glass with his left hand (his strong hand) and through the net for the winning basket.
In its way, it was a perfect illustration of how Conley got from there to here. He has been taking contact from the naysayers since the start.
“He has gotten stronger and he has just gotten better,” Hollins said.
Give an assist, too, to Bayless. Hollins often plays the two guards together now even though the original plan was for Bayless to back up Conley at the point. Bayless has proven a natural and aggressive scorer and plays with an oversized chip on his shoulder; he was averaging 17.2 points and 4.0 assists over his last six games through the victory over the Spurs.
“When (Conley) was in there with J.B., J.B. was doing all the work and Mike was just waiting for an open shot,” Hollins said. “It allows Mike to rest.”
The Grizzlies still want more protection for Conley and to that end they have signed veteran combo guard Keyon Dooling, who has come out of retirement. Dooling was to join the Grizzlies on their three-game road trip to the West Coast, which began with a win Wednesday at Portland.
The Grizzlies are now 11-3 when Conley scores 20 or more points and teams are finding Conley and Bayless difficult to guard in tandem and Conley is finding he can be both the point guard who delivers the ball to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and the point guard who scores clutch baskets.
“We needed another scorer on the perimeter,” Conley said with a shrug, sounding like just another office worker willing to take on more responsibility. “I knew once we traded Rudy, I would have to be that guy.”