These are hazardous times for an excellent team in Memphis. Coach Lionel Hollins is in his lame-duck year, new owners have taken over and Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph reportedly could be traded in the next month. It is in stressful moments like these that the Grizzlies reach out to Mike Conley, their point guard and unnoticed team leader. The source of the concern never seems to matter.
"When everybody has a problem, they come to me,'' Conley said. "They're mad at somebody for not passing the ball, they come to me. I'm the guy that's always defusing everything and taking the burden off a lot of people and letting everything fall onto me. Obviously, I'm built to handle it, and I don't mind doing it. I think it helps our team and keeps a lot of pressure off a lot of these guys to have to worry about it.''
Conley serves an unrewarding role for Memphis. When the Grizzlies win, credit is often given to the balanced offense of Randolph, passing center Marc Gasol and Gay, their leading scorer on the wing. When they lose, the blame shifts routinely to the 25-year-old Conley, who is rarely included on lists of the best at his position in what has become a point-guard league. He ranks No. 18 in assists with six per game, in no small part because he shares playmaking with Gasol, who ranks second among centers with 3.7.
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"A lot of people who have been through what I've been through here might not have been able to make it,'' said Conley, who is in his sixth season with the Grizzlies.
A big reason the Grizzlies are contending for a top seed in the Western Conference is because the 6-foot-1 Conley hasn't simply shrugged of his critics. He has confronted them and found them to be, at times, accurate.
"I just went and looked at the film as much as the critics were looking at it,'' he said. "They said I couldn't shoot outside, and I looked at the percentages and I went, 'Hey, I can't make a shot outside three-point range.' They said, 'He's not a good free-throw shooter.' I said, 'Man, I'm shooting 70 percent -- I've got to shoot better than that.' And I'd go in and make a goal that I want to shoot 80-85 percent, I want to shoot 40 percent behind the three-point line, just different goals to achieve. Looking at the numbers myself helped me open my eyes and realize, 'Hey, you really do need to work on this and get in the gym.' ''
Humility is a defining strength of Conley's leadership. He has earned respect and set a constructive example by dealing with his weaknesses.
"That was one step in the right direction when you can admit your deficiencies, what you're not good at, and attack them head-on,'' he said. "That's what I had to realize. I had to grow up in that sense, and it made me more of a hard worker. Because I understand I'll never be perfect. I've got to keep growing and keep working regardless of how I'm playing or what somebody is saying about me.''
After converting 33 percent from three-point range as a rookie, Conley has turned into a respectable three-point shooter. He is hitting 37.2 percent this season and shooting them more often than ever -- as part of the Grizzlies' strategy to establish the perimeter in order to create space for their interior scorers -- which in turn has helped lower his overall percentage to 41 percent.
"My jump shot is completely different now than it was when I came in,'' he said. "I worked night in, night out, my last three or four seasons, shooting a bunch of jumpers, making sure my technique was correct to begin with. Once I got the technique down, I just started repetition, repetition, repetition. It's become normal to me now that I shoot this way, and shooting more of a smooth stroke instead of herky-jerky and having different sections to my shot. It's one smooth, fluid motion.''
His elbow used to flail out when he shot, but now it stays under the ball. He also shoots from his legs more.
"I was using all upper body, all arms," he said, "so sometimes when I'd get really anxious, I'd jump really high and I'd be like, 'Why am I shooting it strong?' But now I realize I've got to shoot the same way every time in order to get the same kind of results."
Conley grew up realizing that there was always more to learn. His father, Mike Conley (who is now his agent along with Bill Duffy), was an Olympic- and world-champion triple jumper.
"I've grown up seeing what a professional athlete does, how they eat, how much they work out, the work ethic -- that I can have a great year shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line but I'm like, 'Man, my free throw, it just doesn't feel right, I need to get better, I need to keep getting better,'' said Conley, who is shooting 84 percent from the line. "And it's never a satisfied feeling. What I got from him is always to keep working and never be satisfied.''
Hollins appreciates Conley's ability to absorb criticism.
"You have to have that strength of character and faith and belief in yourself and your family support that helps you get through all of this,'' Hollins said. "It's unfortunate that people have expectations of these players that are way out of whack based on what they hear and what peoples' opinions are of what they should be doing. As a player, you can't believe all that hype when they're talking about how good you are, and you can't believe the bad stuff when they say how bad you are."
It helped Conley that he grew up as the second-best player on his teams. At Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, Conley finished No. 2 in the voting for Indiana Mr. Basketball to his teammate Greg Oden, who was the national player of the year. By the time they both decided to attend Ohio State, Conley was used to hearing people talk about how lucky he was to be playing in Oden's shadow.
"Not being the guy coming out of college always helped me understand that I don't need to be the man to play well or make the team better,'' he said. "I can find a role, find whatever suits me best, whatever helps the team. I think everybody fed off the fact that Mike can shoot the ball anytime he wanted to -- but he doesn't, because he wants everybody else to be involved in the offense. It kind of trickles off to everybody else and it's kind of become who I am."
Nearly six years after they were the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in the draft, it is Oden whose career is imperiled while Conley aims for the NBA Finals.
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"It's sad to see what happened to him and I wish him the best and hopefully he has a good recovery,'' Conley said. "But you just never know when you step on the court. That's why you can't really make a judgment on people too soon. We live close to each other in Ohio, and we're with each other all summer. Greg is always trying to have fun and thinking about the upside of things, rather than what bad things happened or what the past was. He's always trying to find the good no matter what.''
Now it is Oden who is supportive of Conley.
"When we got into the playoffs, he was just so proud and happy to see me out there playing so well,'' Conley said. "He's constantly telling me to shoot the ball: 'You've got to shoot it, be aggressive, stop passing so much!' It's good to hear I've got another fan, and it's also my best friend.''
Playing with Oden for so long enabled Conley to develop the nuanced skill of feeding to the post, which is a lost talent among modern point guards.
"Mike is probably the best one I've had,'' said Randolph, who has been scoring from the block for 12 NBA seasons.
Three intensive playoff series over the past two years have vested Conley with experiences that will help Memphis this spring.
"The game has slowed down a lot,'' he said. "I was too fast early on, trying to play one speed. Nowadays, I kind of coast up the court and can change speeds, change direction, and I'm not just running a play but knowing exactly what I want to get out of it.''
In college, he thought he had the game figured out.
"I felt I knew it all, and that was my biggest problem,'' Conley said. "It was a culture shock for me, the things I had to learn. I had to understand how to get stronger, I had to work on my game. There was a lot to get to the point where I'm in now.
"When I watch an NBA game now, it's totally different. It's not even fun. I'm breaking down plays in my head, and I'm calling out to my cousins, like, 'Hey, they're about to run this play right now, look, look!' I'm more worried about the plays and I'm worried about what did he just do or what did the guy on the weak side do to get him open. There's just a bunch of stuff going on that people don't see.''
Because he understands how difficult it is to win, Conley and his teammates have a chance to win big this year. Ownership willing, of course.