Mike Conley Providing Spark That Could Propel the Memphis Grizzlies

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2015

USA Today

Mike Conley entered Game 1 of the Memphis Grizzlies' first-round tilt with the Portland Trail Blazers hobbled, hurting and hounded by a right foot sprain, but that didn't stop him from turning the Grindhouse into a flex zone. 

And if Conley was feeling any ill effects from the nagging injury, he didn't tip his hand on the court.  

As the Grizzlies handled the Blazers 100-86 on Sunday night, Conley scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting in his first appearance since April 10. In true Conley fashion, all six of his conversions came inside the paint, with surprising off-the-dribble burst propelling him toward the rim. 

"Conley came back, and even though he told folks after the game he felt 'a step slow', he didn't really look that way, using his hesitation move to completely baffle Damian Lillard coming off screens and using a lefty scoop shot to devastating effect," the Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe wrote. 

Mike Conley's Game 1 Shot Chart (Green dots are makes, red dots are misses)
Mike Conley's Game 1 Shot Chart (Green dots are makes, red dots are misses)Credit: NBA.com/Stats

Repeatedly slicing through the teeth of Portland's defense, Conley displayed the fearlessness that's made him one of the league's more confident finishers below the free-throw line. 

Take his first-quarter Euro step around Lillard, for example: 

Or how about an and-1 finish after tossing up a left-handed scoop among the trees? 

It would have been understandable for Conley to come out reluctant to change speeds on his gimpy foot and settle for jump shots, but settling wasn't in his game plan. 

Instead, Conley attacked, attacked and attacked some more against the defensively deficient Damian Lillard.

Using his trademark ambidexterity, Conley offers an aesthetic style all his own that no other point guard can match. 

Since he's a deft finisher with both hands, Conley has options galore once he slashes into the lane. Although he's not going to shred defenses with full-steam-ahead destruction like some of his talented contemporaries, Conley is able to employ a graceful, calculated style that allows him to play at a comfortable and controlled velocity. 

Conley's Game 1 By the Numbers
PointsPTS on DrivesTotal DrivesFG% On Drives
Mike Conley1612883.3
NBA.com/Stats

"The fact that he can use both hands really wellI mean, last game he shot a right-handed jump shot from the free-throw line,'' Lillard said prior to Game 1, according to The Oregonian's Jason Quick. "So his speed and ability to use both hands, and how well he uses everybody else makes him tough.''

Although Conley is a natural lefty, his ambidextrous approach provides an element of surprise—and an added dimension to the Grizzlies offense—every time he eyes a high-percentage conversion. 

CBS Sports' Zach Harper touched on the conundrum opposing defenses face when defending Conley during the Grizzlies' Game 1 win: 

According to Synergy Sports, Conley's floater is one of the NBA's most dominant weapons used by point guards: 

Not surprisingly, the 27-year-old's efficiency is directly tied to the Grizzlies' success.

Memphis went 20-6 when Conley hit at least 50 percent of his shots during the regular season, and that trend held true Sunday night. The patented Grit 'N Grinders also went 30-12 when Conley topped 15 points during regular-season action, good for a winning percentage of 71.4. 

"There's a reason the Grizzlies won 55 games this season despite not having a go-to player," SB Nation's Yaron Weitzman wrote. "They have one of the best starting lineups in the league, a group where all five players play a key role. Conley's role is especially important as Memphis goes against a Blazers team that gets much of its offense from the point guard spot."

On the subject of profound impacts, Memphis' offense fluctuates between borderline elite and dangerously inefficient with Conley on and off the floor, respectively. 

Memphis' Offense With and Without Conley
Offensive RatingLeague Rank
Conley On Court105.210
Conley Off Court100.325
Memphis Overall103.113
NBA.com/Stats

That's all overwhelmingly positive for a Memphis team that appeared destined for a first-round slog just 10 days ago. 

But the Grizzlies aren't out of the woods yet. 

"After the game, Conley said his foot (plantar fasciitis) hurt so bad it felt like there was a golf ball in the bottom of his shoe," The Oregonian's John Canzano wrote. 

At the very least, Conley made it clear he isn't 100 percent—and there's a chance he won't be for the remainder of the postseason. 

However, if Conley can tolerate pain the way he did during 24 gutty Game 1 minutes, Memphis could be on to something. 

The Grizzlies' fourth-ranked defense is already tailor-made for the deliberate pace that consumes postseason play, and the offensive jolt Conley provides can make Memphis resemble the team that occupied the Western Conference's No. 2 seed through the month of March. 

But expectations remain key. 

At this rate, the fifth-seeded Grizzlies would have to be content with Conley pushing them into a second-round matchup with the West-best Golden State Warriors. Any prosperity within that prospective showdown—and beyondwould have to be considered a major bonus. 

Championship aspirations may have already faded fast, but with Memphis looking to avoid a third first-round exit in the past four years, Conley's sudden return to form could be the spark needed to consider this season a success. 

All statistics are current as of April 20 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise.  

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