Mike Conley did what he’s done all year against Atlanta. He led Memphis to yet another win over a championship contender.
Four All-Stars took the court Sunday in the Hawks-Grizzlies game, but Mike Conley wasn’t one of them. Instead, the perpetually-snubbed point guard did what he’s done all year, and led Memphis to yet another win over a championship contender.
The Grizzlies didn’t give the Hawks much time to savor their win over the Warriors on Friday, and generally beat them up in a game that was, frankly, ugly. Memphis grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in the 94-88 home victory, though it seemed unable to get any put-backs to fall. The Grizzlies hounded the Hawks into 14 turnovers, including Tony Allen forcing a crucial backcourt violation by knocking the ball off Kyle Korver’s leg with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Memphis tightened the screws with the game on the line, holding Atlanta to just seven points (including a meaningless Jeff Teague layup with eight seconds left) from the 6:48 mark of the fourth quarter through the end of the game. That span included a classic Grit ‘n’ Grind sequence in which the Hawks’ offensive series ended like this: block, turnover, missed five-footer, turnover, block.
The Grizzlies flashed some of the smaller lineups that they’re now capable of fielding thanks to the Jeff Green trade. With just over four minutes left, they went for a two-minute stretch with a lineup of Conley-Green-Allen-Courtney Lee-Zach Randolph, that yielded a Green three, a good look for Lee and a couple of offensive rebounds. For a team that has clung to its two traditional bigs identity, the Grizzlies’ newfound flexibility is a good sign, especially if they must face the Warriors and their army of 6-foot-7 wings in the playoffs.
Conley provided crucial offense in a game where Memphis desperately needed it. He led the team with 21 points on an efficient 7-of-12 shooting while the rest of the Grizzlies combined to shoot just 36 percent from the field. In the fourth quarter, Conley simply took over, scoring nine points, canning two of Memphis’ three three-pointers and assisting on Green's triple with just over four minutes left.
Conley has still never made an All-Star team, but that’s just the reality of life in the Western Conference. He doesn’t have the body of work of Chris Paul, the must-see shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the all-around numbers of James Harden, the overpowering athleticism of Russell Westbrook, or the offensive counting stats and late-game heroics of Damian Lillard. Every year Conley’s name gets floated as a worthy All-Star candidate, and every year he comes up just short. He’s likely a better two-way player than some of those guys, and the fact that the Grizzlies, with the NBA’s third-best record, got just one All-Star, while the Thunder are sending two doesn’t seem quite right. With Kevin Durant as the reigning MVP, and Russell Westbrook’s candidacy not in question, Conley was the odd man out once again.
He can take solace in his team’s success, though. The win makes Memphis just one of three teams to beat both the Hawks and Warriors this season, along with the Spurs and oddly enough, the Lakers. The Grizzlies host the Nets before embarking on a four-game road stretch that includes matchups with the Thunder, Blazers and Clippers (those games are sandwiched around an 11-day break thanks to the All-Star Game).
As for the Hawks, they went 2-2 over their toughest week of the season with wins against the Wizards and Warriors. Atlanta gets to fatten up before the All-Star break with games against the Timberwolves and Celtics before they get a chance to pull away in the East even more with a matchup against the second-seeded Raptors on Feb. 20.