Even in victory, Mike Conley Jr.’s doubters persist.
Fluke, hot streak, just one of those games. Those are some of the excuses Conley’s critics have used to describe his heady play. But it is starting to be drowned out by the admiration of his supporters.
Now in his sixth NBA season, Conley has improved each year, a progression from oft-injured rookie to budding superstar. His rise has been consistent since high school, where he was an All-American beside teammate Greg Oden. The duo went on to prominence at Ohio State before their NBA careers went in opposite directions.
Conley was the fourth overall pick in the same draft that Oden went No. 1 to Portland. While Conley was a top-five selection, if the state of their careers was discussed today without names, most would recognize Oden as the catalyst in a playoff push. Instead, it is Conley.
The point guard has Memphis on solid footing, leading the Western Conference’s top-seeded team, Oklahoma City, 2-1 in their best-of-seven series. The façade from Conley’s game has been lifted. He’s shedding the reputation of being a serviceable point guard to being one of the league’s best – on both ends of the court.
“He’s a steady point guard that deserves more credit than he gets,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I understand the value he has to that team. He plays for his team every night, and I appreciate the way he plays.”
Points Per Isolation
2012-13 NBA regular season
|Mike Conley Jr.||1.05|
During the regular season, Conley averaged a career-high 14.6 points per game, which was complemented by 2.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.2 steals. He joined Chris Paul, regarded as the best point guard in the league, on the 14 points, six assists and two steals per game list. Still, Conley remained largely anonymous.
But his playoff statistics are hard to ignore. Conley is averaging 17.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game. The postseason, dating to high school, has been the time for Conley to thrive. Certain players have that “it” factor where they are able to elevate their game when it matters most. Ohio State fans learned that during the Buckeyes’ run to the 2007 Final Four.
Conley has a first-step that rivals any other player in the league. His initial burst of speed can result in a defender being defenseless or an opposing guard pondering his next move after Conley steals the ball and races up the court.
He is first in the NBA in defensive win shares, an advanced metric that estimates wins contributed by a player based on their defensive merits. With Conley on the court, Memphis has a 98.1 defensive efficiency rating. Without him, that number is a paltry 120.8. Further highlighting his importance at both end of the court, the Grizzlies are +11 per 48 minutes with Conley and –17.3 without him.
In the first-round series win over the Clippers, Conley didn’t play Paul to a stalemate, Conley outplayed him. With Russell Westbrook out for the season, Conley has continued his dominant play against Oklahoma City. Game 2 saw an historic performance – 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
That stat line was the best in Grizzlies postseason history. Only three other players had recorded at least 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on the road in a playoff game during the past 25 years: Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Barron Davis.
“He played like he had been playing all season, and we needed that,” Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins said of Conley’s Game 2 heroics.
“Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not.”
It’s not entirely based in fact, but the point is Conley’s production is not a mirage. He’s an elite point guard in a guard driven league that doesn’t get the exposure that others acquire in larger markets.
But that could be nearing an end. Conley’s emergence was discussed at length on Saturday during ABC’s coverage of the playoffs. The breakout performances have coincided with Rudy Gay being shipped to Toronto in late-January trade. Conley’s stats have skyrocketed since Gay went to the Raptors, leading the Grizzlies in scoring, assists, three-pointers and free throw makes and attempts.
He also has developed into a clutch late-game player. Conley has scored 49 points in games where the margin is five points or less in the final five minutes since the January 30th trade. That is 11th-most in the league. Surprisingly, Conley, not James, leads the NBA in points per isolation with 1.05.
“Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not,” Memphis guard Tony Allen said. “I know a lot of people have got their favorites on who they think it should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now, being able to do these types of things on the court night in and night out.”
The list of allies is growing.