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VOL. 132 | NO. 65 | Friday, March 31, 2017

The Conductor, Mike Conley, Orchestrating A Career Year

By Don Wade

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Hours before the Indiana Pacers found themselves caught in the middle of a tornadic offensive performance from Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, there was a calm at FedExForum. As the Grizzlies went through their day-of-game shoot-around, Conley was almost still, standing off to the side and playing coach. With Conley’s history of being banged up at this stage of the season, Tony Allen was understandably concerned.

Mike Conley scored 36 points with six assists and four steals to lead the Grizzlies past Indiana, 110-97 on March 29 at FedExForum, and break the team's four-game losing streak. 

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

“I asked him, `You OK?’” Allen said. “And he said, `Yeah, I’m OK. I’m saving it all for tonight.’”

Mark that down under the perfect forecast. For later on Wednesday, March 29, Conley went out and scored 36 points, matching his career high with seven made triples, and handed out six assists with four steals in a 110-97 victory over the Pacers that broke a four-game losing streak.

Afterward, Conley called it a “must-win.” We would call that the understatement of the Grizzlies’ season.

Now 41-34 heading into their Friday, March 31, home game vs. Dallas, the Grizzlies likely will be relegated to the 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But that part almost doesn’t matter now. Whether they are 6, 7 or 8 they are getting the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets. This is the kind of choice for which the phrase “pick your poison” was invented.

But for a night, that was a reality pushed to the side so as to better appreciate what Conley did and what he has become in his 10th season and as the league’s highest-paid player – a circumstance of coincidence, by the way.

Don’t, however, forget this truth: The huge contract and the scrutiny that comes with it might have weighed a different player down, got in his head and twisted his mind to the point that the player became his own worst enemy.

Not Mike Conley. Not this player who takes his game and his job seriously, but not himself.

Most impressive about what he did against the Pacers was that the opponent had to know this was the Grizzlies’ best chance to win for the first time in almost two weeks – follow the scoring point guard. All-Star center Marc Gasol was sitting out a third straight game with left foot strain. Starting power forward JaMychal Green didn’t play because of a sore shoulder.

So coach David Fizdale rolled out his 22nd different starting lineup of the season: Conley and Vince Carter in the backcourt, Allen and James Ennis at the forwards, and Brandan Wright at center as Zach Randolph returned to the second unit, which had struggled when he replaced Gasol.

Carter provided 21 points of support for Conley, Randolph 17, Wright 13, and Allen hit several boxes on the stat sheet with seven points, eight rebounds and four assists. Ennis pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds.

But it was Conley the conductor who scored 16 of the Grizzlies’ 38 first-quarter points and led them to a lead that eventually reached 25 points.

“We allowed him to kind of orchestrate the whole offense,” said the Pacers’ Paul George. “He got comfortable early and he’s a flame thrower. Once he gets hot, it’s over.”

He has been hot a lot lately, leading or tying for the team lead in points over the last eight games. His 36 points vs. Indiana marked his ninth 30-point game of the season.

Three years ago, Conley averaged a career-best 17.2 points per game. He has blown past that, now sitting at 20.4 points per game. And his playmaking has not suffered. His 6.3 assists is over his career average of 5.7 and his highest output since he averaged 6.5 in the 2011-12 season.

In these last few months before his 30th birthday (Oct. 11, if you’re inclined to send a card or a cake), Conley is not getting older, he is getting better.

“Since post-All-Star (Game), he’s been killing it,” Fizdale said. “I know our record doesn’t necessarily display him killing it. I know he doesn’t care about the individual numbers, but you can see it. He’s turning it up a notch.”

No question, we can see it here. Nationally? Well, it’s hard to be noticed when on the same night you score 36 points with six assists, Russell Westbrook scores 57 points with 13 rebounds and 11 assists. It was merely the highest point total in a triple-double in the history of the NBA.

Fizdale saw that line and described Westbrook as “out of this world,” which is about right.

Conley, of course, is not Russell Westbrook. Neither, we might add, is James Harden.

But Conley is as valuable to the Grizzlies as Westbrook is to the Thunder. Always has been. And he has played through more injuries and adversity than any point guard in the NBA.

“The guy is a warrior,” Fizdale said. “A proven warrior.”

Minus the theatrics and ego that are part of the package with both Harden and Westbrook.

Conley’s take on his game that stopped a four-game losing streak: He just felt a responsibility to “make a statement” that “we’re not playing the basketball we need to be playing right now and we’re better than this.”

A hot take? Not in terms of a sound bite, but there was plenty of heat on the court. Thanks to Mike Conley – The Conductor/Flame Thrower.

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