Mike Conley is not a facade.
When you hear mention of the Memphis Grizzlies, your mind isn't conditioned to arrive at Conley. Not immediately.
You think of Marc Gasol, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year. Or Zach Randolph, one of the most combative rebounders in the league. Or even Rudy Gay, and how his departure made the team better. Or perhaps sweltering defense, the kind that can inhibit the most potent of offensive attacks (see the Oklahoma City Thunder).
However, Conley is not normally who comes to mind. He's always been considered a good point guard, but not a great one. More of a fundamentally sound complementary piece than anything else.
When Conley put up career highs in points per game (14.6) and PER (18.4) during the regular season, nothing changed. He joined Chris Paul as one of three point guards in the NBA to average at least 14 points, six assists and two steals per game and still didn't get the proper respect.
Conley continued to fly under the radar in Memphis. The Grizzlies weren't about him and what he was doing. It was about Gasol, Randolph and defense.
Then came the playoffs.
Conley has thrived in the postseason, presently averaging career-playoff highs in points (17.9), assists (7.8), rebounds (4.5) and steals (1.3) per game. His PER (21.3) is 11th amongst all players who have appeared in the playoffs and seventh amongst all who are active, putting him ahead of stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and Z-Bo.
More recently, Conley has solidified his place in the record books.
In Memphis' Game 2 win over Oklahoma City, he dropped 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, becoming the first Grizzlies player in franchise history to post such a lucrative stat line. His showcase also put him alongside LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Baron Davis as the only four players in the last 25 years to record 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a road playoff victory.
Mike Conley had 26 Pts, 10 Reb & 9 Ast in Game 2. He's 1st Grizzlies player in franchise history to reach those numbers in a playoff game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2013
Mike Conley is 4th different player in last 25 seasons w/ 26 Pts, 10 Reb & 9 Ast in road playoff win, joining LBJ, MJ, Baron Davis...— NBA History (@NBAHistory) May 8, 2013
In securing his place in amongst some of the all-time greats, Conley has put the rest of the NBA playoff teams on notice. And he's inspired those within the Grizzlies franchise to place a suddenly gallant sense of faith in him.
Conley's performance in Game 2 prompted Memphis' owner, Robert Pera, to call him the best point guard in the league at the expense of Chris Paul.
CP3 who?@mconley11 has a lot more in him; just scratching the surface.Show'em Mike!Best PG in the league!— Robert J Pera (@RobertPera) May 8, 2013
Fellow Grizzly Tony Allen also didn't hesitate to refer to Conley as a top-five point guard.
Tony Allen says Mike Conley is one of the top 5 point guards in the league— Eli Savoie (@Eli560) May 8, 2013
And so, with increasing votes of confidence now being tossed Conley's way, we're left to wonder: Is he for real? Is this actually Conley, or is he simply riding a hot streak?
My answer comes in the form of another question: What hot streak?
Conley is averaging career playoff highs nearly across the board, but he's also boasting a less-than-impressive clip from the field (41.7 percent) and an unsightly conversion rate from deep (27.3 percent). He's also shooting more—almost two more shots a game than he did in the regular season.
Are his four 20-point (or more) games in eight postseason tries a bit out of character? Absolutely, but he's also been more of the aggressor, because the Grizzlies are encouraging him to. His usage rate (23.1) is more than two percentage points higher (21) than it was during the regular season.
This is what Conley can do when he's given the opportunity. Hell, this is what he was doing all season.
Memphis' offense has been eight points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the playoffs, which is exactly how it fared during the season. He's still scoring; he's still helping his teammates score.
To call the tear that Conley has been on a "hot streak" is then slightly insulting, because he's not on a "hot streak." And he's not on a "tear" either.
"He played like he had been playing all season, and we needed that," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said after Game 2 (via ESPN.com).
What we're seeing now is the same Conley we saw during the regular season. He's scoring more and assisting more, but he's also being relied on more. And the level he's currently playing at isn't over-his-head incredible. It's sustainable.
Don't make the mistake of comparing Conley to Paul, Tony Parker or a healthy Derrick Rose. He's not the best point guard in the league. His efficiency leaves much to be desired and he doesn't take over a game as freely. Let's not pretend he's something he isn't
Conley, however, is an elite point guard. He has been for quite some time. The national stage on which he is now playing has merely elevated his status through exposure more than anything.
Is Mike Conley really this good, or is he just riding a hot streak right now?
So is he for real?
Of course he is.
"I know a lot of people have got their favorites on who they think it should be," Allen said of Conley being in the top-five point-guard conversation, "but Mike Conley is in that conversation now, being able to do these types of things on the court night in and night out."
Conley has always been able to do "these types of things," and while he may not be be a top-five point guard, Allen is correct. He's definitely in that conversation and in the upper echelon of floor generals.
Which is nothing new.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.