Mike Conley’s Guts, Grit, and Grind Lead Memphis To A Win Over Golden State

It’s fitting that on the night basketball’s MVP received a trophy, Marc Gasol’s team played like the championship frontrunner it was when he was a legitimate contender for the award. Even more encouraging is that it wasn’t Big Spain who led the Memphis Grizzlies to those exalted former heights.

Lifted physically and spiritually by the reappearance of a masked Mike Conley, the Grizzlies beat the Golden State Warriors 97-90 on Tuesday night to even the teams’ Western Conference Semifinals matchup at one game apiece.

Playing in his first game since suffering facial fractures on April 25 and subsequently undergoing corrective surgery, Conley scored a game-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He splashed from beyond the arc, creased the paint with ease to launch his patented off-hand floaters, and set the table all game long for a Memphis team bereft of perimeter dynamism 48 hours earlier with its point guard watching from the sidelines.

We wrote before the game when it became apparent Conley might suit up that his mere presence would be a major boon for the Grizzlies. Dave Joerger opted to start third-string Nick Calathes in place his usual floor general on Sunday, and Golden State took full advantage by treating the journeyman like the offensive zero he really is.

Results of the Warriors paying Calathes scant attention were Memphis’ 17.5 turnover ratio and 93.8 offensive rating – putrid numbers lagging well behind those the team compiled during the regular season. And though this first quarter possession from Game 1 is an extreme example of the Grizzlies’ limitations without a bonafide playmaker in the lineup, it nevertheless illustrates just how cramped their halfcourt can become during those unenviable times.

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Sequences like the above just don’t happen with Conley on the floor. Not only is he an equally viable threat as shooter, penetrator, and passer via ball-screens, but he’s also a worthy floor-spacer and safety valve. The 27 year-old made plenty of plays for Memphis Tuesday night in which he was directly involved. Conley’s influence, though, extends much further than points and assists – especially compared to his replacement’s.

On this hard-earned bucket from the third quarter of Game 2, watch Steph Curry stay tight on Conley as Tony Allen crosses the paint before finding Zach Randolph.

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If that was Calathes situated on the left wing instead, Curry – one of the league’s steals leaders – would have dug down hard in efforts to create a turnover with no fear of immediate repercussions. But Conley had already drained two triples by this point in the game, and shot 38 percent from above the break during the regular season – Steph wasn’t leaving him.

For all of Conley’s tangible and intangible offensive impact, though, he might have been even more valuable gritting and grinding on the other end.

Curry shot just 7-of-19 overall and 2-of-11 from three-point range en route to 19 points on his crowning night. Unable to free himself from the slippery Conley while navigating screens on and off the ball, the MVP was goaded into one of the five worst long-range shooting performances of his six-year career. Digging deeper into the numbers, it’s not hard to see why. After attempting 11 uncontested shots during a win over the Grizzlies on Sunday, Curry found just five such tries in Game 2.

Conley did a fantastic job of staying attached to the Warriors superstar, slithering over and around picks on all areas of the court. Memphis was able to force the ball from Curry’s hands early in most pick-and-roll situations with sound primary defense and aggressive help, and even deny him a touch entirely on several other possessions.

The re-implementation of a key player is never about him alone, however. Conley’s presence allowed Tony Allen to focus on stopping Klay Thompson, a task which the two-time All-Defensive First Team honoree completed with typical ferocity. Even better: Memphis’ elite defensive pairing was able to switch assignments on the fly whenever necessary, mitigating open looks on fast breaks and in secondary transition from which the Splash Brothers feast.

Conley was brilliant on both ends in Game 2, and it was clear from the opening that his teammates fed off his appearance alone. Once he started playing like the All-Star he should be, the Grizzlies weren’t only believing they could win at Oracle Arena, but also take this series entirely.

If Memphis builds off this crucial Game 2 win to upset the 67-win Warriors and advance to the Conference Finals, it should be dreaming biggest like it did over the first half of the season. And should that prove the case, the Grizzlies will have Conley’s gutsy Game 2 performance to thank for it most.