With all the star point guards in the Western Conference, Mike Conley still flies under the radar among casual fans, even though any smart basketball person will sing his praises. Among his equally underrated Memphis Grizzlies, Conley isn’t the first thing people think of — that would be their Grit ‘n Grind motto first, and Marc Gasol second. But make no mistake, he is absolutely essential to the perennial playoff performers.
Now word has come down from TNT’s Lewis Johnson that Conley will miss at least Game 4 of Memphis’ first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers after having surgery to repair facial fractures he sustained in a collision with C.J. McCollum. Even though Memphis is up 3-0 on the Blazers, this is a big deal.
The Grizzlies are still heavy favorites to advance, since the Blazers are banged up themselves and still don’t have the frontcourt depth to contain Zach Randolph and Gasol (and rememeber how no team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit in NBA history? Right, how could you forget). In addition, backup point guard Beno Udrih should play in Game 4 after missing Game 3 with a sprained ankle, and he played beyond his backup status in the first two games. Third-stringer Nick Calathes also performed well in 25 minutes of action during Game 3 after Conley went down.
The bigger problem is, of course, what happens if and when the Grizzlies advance. The Warriors swept the New Orleans Pelicans, but the Pels looked like a better team than any of the other squads who went down 3-0. The Dubs are still fully healthy, and Steph Curry is somehow getting even better, averaging nearly 34 points in the series. The Grizzlies, when also injury-free, are perhaps the best-equipped team to defend Golden State. Tony Allen has the potential to give Klay Thompson nightmares, and the duo of Z-Bo and Gasol make it difficult for anyone to get offense at the rim. But someone needs to guard Curry, and I don’t think Beno or Calathes are the guys for the job.
In the first two games of the first round, Mike Conley hounded Damian Lillard into 10-of-37 shooting while dealing with plantar fasciitis. No one can lock down Steph Curry, but Conley is a damn good defender, and when he, Allen, Z-Bo and Gasol all share the floor, they defend exceptionally well, only surrendering 98 points per 100 possessions, just about equaling the Warriors’ league-leading regular season average.
Conley is an excellent offensive distributor, make no mistake, but the only way the Grizzlies could hope to steal a game at the Oracle Center in Oakland will be if they lock down the Dubs’ offense and keep a lid on the loudest home crowd in the NBA. And to do that, they’re going to need Conley. So far, he hasn’t been ruled out of any games beyond Game 4 on Monday, and all the Grizzlies can do is cross their fingers that their tough point guard can strap on a mask and get out there to give them a chance.