LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While Chris Paul was busy scoring a playoff career-high-tying 35 points on Tuesday, Memphis guard Mike Conley was quietly leaving his fingerprints on a series he has helped shift in favor of the Grizzlies.
Conley is the “other” point guard in a playoff matchup that features National Basketball Association (NBA) elite little man Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, but his importance should not be lost in his subtlety.
In what had already been a strong series for the 25-year-old Conley, he rose to the occasion yet again with 20 points and six assists to give Memphis, winners of three straight, a 103-93 road win and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
Conley did not match a red-hot Paul shot for shot Tuesday, but with his steady decision-making and poise, he did not have to.
”I’ve always grown up with this team and not tried to match another guy, especially when he’s capable of going for 40 (points) any night,“ Conley told Reuters. ”I understand that I‘m not a guy that’s going to try to get 40 on a team with so many guys.
“I just try to stay within myself and stay within the team game, and hopefully it works out.”
It has certainly been working out thus far, as the sixth-year NBA guard is stabilizing Memphis with playoff averages of 16.2 points and 8.6 assists a game, fairly comparable numbers to those of six-time All Star Paul.
If it seems that Conley deserves more billing in his duel with the Clippers’ leading man, it is only natural considering his understated presence on his own team.
With post tandem Zach Randolph and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol leading the way, the Grizzlies are a squad centered around their big men.
Conley can sometimes even find himself overshadowed on the perimeter, where defensive stopper and strong personality Tony Allen gains notoriety, and former high-scorer Rudy Gay starred before he was traded to Toronto at midseason.
A soft-spoken but fierce competitor, Conley may not have the personality suited for headlines, but with the ball constantly in his hands there is little doubt he is authoring Memphis’s story.
“(He can seem) conservative, but he has another side and if you push a button it might go the other way,” said Allen, alluding to Conley’s inner toughness. “He’s been doing a great job as a leader for us. We go as he goes.”
Conley has always shouldered big responsibility for the Grizzlies, beginning when he was selected by the franchise with the fourth overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft.
When he signed a five-year, $40 million dollar contract extension in 2010 many questioned his ability as a franchise point guard, but Conley has led Memphis to the playoffs three straight years while steadily improving.
“Of all the guys on the team he’s been asked to do a lot,” said Memphis forward Tayshaun Prince. “He’s logged a lot of minutes. He’s carrying a big load and we need him to do it.”
The Clippers, perhaps, relied too much on Paul in the pivotal Game Five where he was just one of two Los Angeles players in double-figure scoring.
Paul attempted 24 shots and tried his best to will Los Angeles to victory, but his counterpart Conley always found answers; often times using his speed to blow into the lane or lead a fast break, and other times controlling the pace and running the clock.
Conley is clearly showing his worth in his battle with Paul, and also proving that sometimes less is more.
“He’s been strong all year,” said Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, of his point guard. “He’s a competitor, and I would imagine he likes to go out there and compete against the best and see where he stands.”
The series resumes Friday in Memphis.
Editing by Frank Pingue