Essay: Conley With A Wild…Toss
The moment after he stepped back between his legs—causing Randy Foye to briefly resemble a delirious crazy person—and rattled in a three-pointer that tickled the edge of the rim before falling through (the one shot that most felt it was “meant to be” out of all that were taken this weekend), was the moment I decided to write something about Mike Conley. With the type of star power that’s normally reserved for a second or third round battle—featuring Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Rudy Gay, and Zach Randolph all anxiously grunting in their starting gates—through three quarters last night, Conley was the game’s best player.
Connoly scored 16 points on five three-pointers (0 misses), grabbed four rebounds, dished seven assists, had no turnovers, and helped make Chris Paul’s life miserable, holding one of the sport’s premier players to a 4-10 shooting performance, with four assists and two turnovers. But in the fourth quarter things fell apart, and despite his two-way brilliance through the game’s first 36 minutes, some of what happened can’t avoid falling on Conley’s shoulders.
Rudy Gay was the worst decision-maker/performer for Memphis during last night’s fourth quarter, but with two minutes remaining, the one-time gargantuan lead down to six, and the people of Memphis on their feet, literally begging their team not to blow it, Mike Conley illogically milked the clock, ignored a rolling Marc Gasol (0 points on 0 shots in the fourth quarter), and did something that put linguistic genius Dick Stockton at a loss for words.
It was expected before last night’s historic comeback that the outcome of this series would ultimately fall in Memphis’ favor, simply because they’re bigger, tougher, and, plainly put, seem to enjoy being a big bully. (Marreese Speights reminds me of a cross between the nightmare inducing monster from “The Hills Have Eyes”, and an African-American version of the WWE’s Kane.) It was here they’d gut it out and swipe four of seven games. Despite their crushing Game 1 loss, this could and should still hold true, but after watching how well they played in the first quarter, followed by how poorly they ended the fourth, a question must be asked: How much of this team’s success is in direct reliance with the continued evolvement of Mike Conley?
Mike Conley is the brain that leads Memphis’ massive body. He makes everything operate smoothly on offense, subtly (and not so subtly) dictating pace on both ends of the court. By letting the clock run down, and “playing not to lose” as Charles Barkley said after the game, what Conley did here constitutes as a major brain fart. But let’s back things up a little bit, because seriously, this is Mike Conley we’re talking about right now. The player whose contract everyone laughed at when Memphis decided to extend an offer that was previously perceived as rash. The player whose name NEVER enters a discussion when we make pointless lists detailing who the league’s top 10 point guards are. Is he really this good, and is he really this important?
On a team that has a roster full of guys who know their distinguished role better than any other—except San Antonio—the feeling goes that Marc Gasol is the best player Memphis has. (He may not be their crunch time scorer, but I’m of the belief that 47 minutes of basketball are more important than one.) After that, where do things stand? Rudy Gay is hardly an elite scorer (it’s his primary function, and on several switches last night that saw him stuck on the perimeter, licking his chops with Reggie Evans or Kenyon Martin defending him, Gay failed miserably), and Zack Randolph, pushups and all, still isn’t his normal self. That leaves Mike Conley, the forgotten man in this cast of zany characters. Has his play become the primary dictator of how far this Grizzlies team can eventually go? Judging from the bulk of what we saw last night, it appears so.