Thursday, May 9, 2013

Digging Deeper: Mike Conley's Playoff Performance

Mike Conley is going from overrated to underrated in a very good way. (KGO-TV, San Francisco)

"Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not" - Tony Allen, May 7, 2013

Journalists are taught to never begin a story with a quote. Maybe this rule extends to all writers, maybe it does not, but beginning with those raised marks and someone else's words is lazy, non-inventive and decidedly unappealing. But Tony Allen said something after the Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 99-93 — in Oklahoma City — as Mike Conley recorded a near-triple-double and ascended from the defense-only profile assigned to him by most accounts.

Allen himself represents the mentality of the Grizzlies; he's tough, tenacious and a physical defender. You would forgive him for putting his teammates, and himself by extension, in the best possible light. No one outside of Conley's family, teammates and most ardent fans considered him a top-five point guard through the regular season and it would be a tough task finding someone to put him in that same category when the competition was whittled down to 16 teams for the playoffs? Would anyone realistically place Conley among names like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Ty Lawson or Steve Nash, injured and all? That goes without mentioning sidelined stars (Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose) or highly regarded reserves (Eric Bledsoe).

Even out of the eight teams in the conference semifinals, would Conley be a shoe-in for a spot among the best point guards remaining? He's certainly not reached the status of Tony Parker, Stephen Curry or LeBron James in pseudo-point-forward mode. Is Conley's effort comparable to the slash-and-kick, near-rim efficiency of Raymond Felton or the craftiness of Pablo Prigioni? What about Miami's clutch-savoring Mario Chalmers?

No matter what preconceived notions carried into the playoffs, Conley is having a coming out party on a national stage — one that, depending on how long it keeps going, could validate Allen's statement. In November, Jared Dubin and Jordan White wrote about Conley thriving in the shadows and the points made were all accurate, but Conley's 26-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist night comes on the heels of him checking CP3 enough to disrupt the Clippers post-Lob City strategy to help Memphis advance to the second round where, without Westbrook, Conley has more allowance to explore the offensive side of his game.

Entering the series on OKC's hardwood, he took one game to feel things out. Conley shot 33 percent, bogged down by going 1-5 from deep, but assisted on three baskets and managed to grab five rebounds. Game two was different, to say the least. When Memphis traded Rudy Gay to Toronto, the question was if the Grizzlies had a reliable late-game scorer left on the roster. Conley's performance gave a clear answer to the tune of 11-22 shooting, sinking a three to put the Grizzlies ahead by two with less than two minutes to go in the contest. He addressed the situation as a whole after the game, via ESPN:

"After we lost Rudy, it was tough. We didn't know who was going to be that guy down the stretch. I kind of had to assume that role, grow into it, and live and learn from it. Sometimes I make shots and sometimes I don't. I'm kind of getting used to it. Tonight was one of those nights."
It is an adjustment for Conley, being the go-to player in clutch situations. It's also an adjustment getting this kind of attention, the kind that comes with being on the forefront of a playoff team. He isn't quite there yet — Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Allen are still Grizzlies, after all — but Conley has come a long way from his time at Ohio State, living essentially as a sidekick to Greg Oden. The criticism of his ability to be a successful point guard in the NBA started even before Conley started 46 games as a rookie in 2007-08. It took his Memphis team three more seasons to reach the playoffs, facing both the San Antonio Spurs and the Thunder as an underdog. Since then, though, the Grizzlies have been a Western Conference mainstay in the postseason and Conley has drastically improved in nearly every meaningful category.

2010-11 13.7 .477 .418 1.6 10.0 5.7 27.5 1.5 0.5 12.7 21.3 102 109 0.3 0.3 0.6 .059
2011-12 15.7 .550 .493 1.7 8.7 5.1 32.6 1.2 0.0 15.1 17.7 115 106 0.6 0.2 0.8 .146
2012-13 21.9 .534 .458 2.8 12.8 7.6 36.0 1.8 0.9 9.5 23.1 117 107 0.9 0.2 1.2 .187
Career 16.5 .510 .446 1.9 10.4 6.0 31.2 1.5 0.5 12.2 20.9 110 108 1.9 0.8 2.6 .117
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/9/2013.

Realistically, Conley will not be considered one of the top five point guards at the end of the Grizzlies' current playoff run, whenever that may be. He probably won't even receive such a designation in the run-up to the 2013-14 season. In Tony Allen's eyes, though, Conley is already there and, according to the numbers, the always underrated point-man is well on his way. All he needs is a little more time to get used to the role.

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