OAKLAND—It would have been hard to blame Mike Conley if he had stayed back at the team hotel on Tuesday night, lying in bed with the lights dim, soothing music playing and extra strength pain reliever at the ready. Just 48 hours earlier not only had Conley, the Memphis Grizzlies point guard, been unable to play in Game 1 of the Grizzlies’ playoff series against Golden State, he had a hard time just being in Oracle Arena, dealing with the bright lights, the pulsating beat of the music throughout the building and the noise of the crowd. The arena known as 'Roaracle' seemed like the last place that a man in Conley’s condition ought to be.
It had all aggravated the pain of the facial fractures Conley had surgically repaired on April 27. Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger compared his point guard’s throbbing head to a thermometer heated almost to the point of exploding. So on Tuesday night, as badly as the Grizzlies needed him to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole in their Western Conference semifinal, one could forgive Conley for choosing to sit another game out.
“I didn’t want to be the one to pressure him to come back,” said swingman Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ defensive demon and one of Conley’s closest friends. “But man, was I hoping. No, make that praying.”
Conley, wearing a protective Plexiglass mask that steamed up periodically, answered his teammates’ prayers in Game 2, surpassing all expectations, even his own, by scoring 22 points with three assists and just one turnover, and the Grizz regained their footing in a series that was threatening to get away from them with a 97-90 victory that evened the matchup at one win apiece.
“I didn’t expect to come out and score as well as I did,” Conley said afterwards, his left eye still puffy and discolored. “ just wanted to come out and do what I do for the team.” What he does is provide stellar on-ball defense and create shots for his teammates while judiciously picking his own spots to score, and he did all of that nearly flawlessly on Tuesday night.
“Talk about toughness, “ forward Zach Randolph said. “The guy had part of his face caved in and he’s out there battling like that. When you see one of your leaders do something like that, it makes you want to play harder, to make sure he’s not doing it for nothing.”
The Grizzlies, who were overmatched without Conley in Game 1, seemed to recover their identity with their point guard back in action. The series moves for Games 3 and 4 to their arena, the FedEx Forum, which is known as the Grind House. But Memphis turned Oracle into a grind house for the Warriors, ending Golden State’s 21-game home winning streak and handing the Warriors its first loss at Oracle since Jan. 27. Everything was a slog for the Warriors, who fumbled passes, missed easy shots and shot an extremely un-Warrior-like 6-of-26 from three-point range.
“I thought we lost our poise tonight,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That was the biggest issue. We were in such a rush. We were too emotional. Instead of just moving the ball and setting good screens, everyone was trying to do everything frantically on their own.”
Some of that extra emotion may have come from Curry’s MVP presentation ceremony before the game. Curry, who was named the winner of the award on Monday, got the chance to hold the trophy aloft and make a short speech to the fans moments before tipoff, and he admitted that the euphoria of the last two days may have skewed things for him and his teammates. Curry missed nine of his 11 three-point attempts and shot 7-of-19 overall, finishing with 19 points.
His fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, was just as off-target, shooting 1-of-6 on threes, scoring 13 points and committing five turnovers. “It was weird,” Curry said. “That’s the best way I can put it. You want to stay in the moment but obviously the extracurricular stuff changes your routine, and it’s different. I don’t know if that was the reason for the way things went tonight, but it’s been a long 48 hours with a lot of words, a lot of pictures.”
But Memphis had a lot to do with the Warriors’ struggles. The Grizzlies devoted themselves to stopping the Golden State transition game by choosing not to chase offensive rebounds in order to retreat on defense, and their defense around the three-point arc was much more dynamic than in Game 1. The strategy worked for the most part, and even when it didn’t, the Warriors were so out of sync it didn’t really matter. They somehow botched a 2-1 break with Curry and Shaun Livingston, and Thompson rammed what should have been a dunk off the back iron in the first half. Everything that came so easily to the Warriors all season suddenly became difficult.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, played their typical game, pounding the ball into their big men, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, which helped get the Warriors’ Draymond Green into early foul trouble. As versatile as the Warriors are, they are not the same team when Green spends extended time on the bench, and they never seemed to regain their stride after he was forced to the bench early.
While Memphis grabbed control of the game, they also made sure to protect Conley. When Green inadvertently elbowed him in the mask during a scramble for a loose ball, the Grizzlies took offense. It briefly looked like there might be a confrontation. “I asked him if he was trying to hurt my point guard,” Randolph said. “He said no. I believed him. But I had to ask.”
Golden State, down 11 at halftime, pushed the rock up the hill for most of the second half, but couldn’t ever hit the big shot or make the late run that their fans have come to expect. Allen took the momentum out of one a last-ditch run by picking off a Curry cross-court pass and taking it in for dunk for an 87-76 lead with 5:34 to go. Then Conley, fittingly, supplied a dagger three for a 90-80 lead with 2:11 left.
“Oh, you mean One-Eyed Charlie?” Allen said, using his new nickname for Conley. “Yeah, he was pretty good tonight.”
Near the end of the game, Allen pulled Conley close and whispered something in his ear. “It’s been a rough road for him all year, battling different injuries. I just told him I was proud of him.”
In addition to pride, Allen surely felt gratitude, because Conley just might have saved their season. What once looked like a series the Warriors could cruise through now appears that it might be a grind, and grinding is what the Grizzlies to best.