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VOL. 132 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 19, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

The Press Box: Conley Finds His Best Game Starts with Him

By Don Wade

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After Mike Conley signed the richest deal in NBA history last summer – five years and $153 million – his old coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, Lionel Hollins, made a couple of predictions during an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

Prediction one: “It’s not going to change how Mike plays.”

Prediction two: “I don’t think he’s going to let it faze him at all.”

Hollins was half-right. The contract did not faze Conley. But the roadrunner point guard did change the way he played, accepting more responsibility for scoring, then embracing it, and finally hogging – in the best sense possible – much of the stage time in his team’s six-game first-round playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

“Pop, he don’t pull no punches,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said after the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich praised Conley. “If it’s real, he’s gonna say it. (Mike) has been underrated. But that’s kind of out the window now. I think everybody sees that he’s a bona fide star point guard in this league. Some of the things he did in that series, only a star could make plays like that, play after play.”

Which today is kind of the sad part, isn’t it? Mike Conley’s season is done, has been for a while now.

The Spurs, diminished by injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, are Western Conference Finals road kill for the Golden State Warriors. The Boston Celtics, Irish-lucky with the first pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, are the Eastern Conference Finals competition for the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. But the series just feels like a coronation for LeBron.

No doubt, Conley raised his profile with his career-best 20.5 points this season and his 24.7 points and 7.0 assists in the Spurs series. And no doubt, Fizdale and teammates deserve some credit for helping Conley make this ascent, going against his get-everybody-else-involved-first nature.

But before all of that could happen, Conley had to stand up to the criticism – unwarranted though it was – of his contract.

“The thing I’m most proud of is not numbers, per se, but the way I approached the year given all the outside negative attention,” he said. “It can break you, it can cause you to put a lot of pressure on yourself. The way I approached it mentally, I was proud that I was able to hold it up and I believe I’ll always be able to hold it up.”

Once Conley had that mindset, it was easier for his coach and teammates to reach him.

As veteran Vince Carter put it: “We just wanted him to channel his inner Mike Conley.”

This meant being the alpha, a necessity in an NBA that leans ever more toward the wing players.

Conley started to find this reservoir within himself in the second half of the season, saying, “Something clicked inside, I found another guy I could tap into and get angry. Not necessarily vocal, but the way I was playing was angry. It’s cool to know I was able to grow to that level.”

He grew so much, in fact, that the mild-mannered guy that never gets technical fouls finally started to show more emotion after making big plays. This surprised even Conley, who wasn’t aware he was allowing himself a fist pump or a skip or two after a huge moment.

“I don’t recognize myself sometimes,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I’m just gonna try and roll with it.”

Long may Inner Mike Conley reign.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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