In the last three games, Mike Conley has made a pretty solid case for himself as an All-Star: back to back 30-point outings against San Antonio and Phoenix followed up by 21 points on 7-15 shooting and 13 assists in Sunday evening's win over the Atlanta Hawks. People are starting to talk about how good he has been all year long, and he seems to be improving and getting better every time he's asked to step up.
Conley has been nothing short of a revelation this season. He's carrying the offense as usual, keeping the ball moving and threatening to blow by his man and get to the rim at the drop of a hat, but he's scoring more than he's ever scored before, he's developed a near-elite ability to finish at the rim, and he's getting to the foul line more than ever (even though he still gets clobbered for no call on a regular basis—the perils of being Mike Conley, I guess).
If you'd asked me before the Marc Gasol injury whether the Grizzlies would survive better without Gasol or Conley, I would've said Gasol, but I would've had to think about it for a minute before I answered. Now, it's clear that Mike Conley (in Gasol's absence, especially) is what makes this Grizzlies team work. Take him away, and the whole thing grinds (no pun intended) to a halt.
Zach Randolph has had some monster games recently, as well, but his play (along with the added spark of new addition Courtney Lee and the continued growth of Ed Davis, among other things) has been lost in the white-hot heat of whatever is happening with Conley at the moment.
Conley has kept the Grizzlies in the hunt for the West's last playoff spot. If he weren't playing this well, I would argue you'd see a Grizzlies team thinking about tanking, making future-oriented roster moves and saying "let's wait for next year." But they're not. And #11 has a great deal to do with that.
• Mike Conley, as I just spent 300 words explaining.
• The small lineup that coach Dave Joerger went to in the fourth quarter last night against Atlanta ended up pulling away from the Hawks and sealing the game for the Grizzlies: Conley, Courtney Lee, Mike Miller, James Johnson as power forward, and Zach Randolph. Johnson's athleticism allowed him to make defensive plays against Paul Millsap that Randolph wasn't able to make, and overall the outside shooting from Lee and Miller—they took a lot of shots from long range, and made an unusually high percentage thereof—spread Atlanta thin on defense. We're starting to see the offense that Joerger wants to run now that he has personnel capable of running it.
I tweeted this thought during the Grizzlies' big comeback run:
Makes me feel kind of weird that a lot of the Grizzlies’ best runs lately have come with a really athletic guy at the 4...
— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) January 13, 2014
But several Twitter followers told me to be quiet and not to bring that up. So I'm just going to leave that thought there, to be revisited at a later date.
• This is something I talked about on MemphiSport Live on Saturday morning: Joerger has got to be more consistent with his rotations. I've been harping on this for a while now, I guess, but that doesn't make it any less true: on any NBA team, guys perform better if they're comfortable with (1) when they'll be playing and (2) how much they'll be playing. The lineups being used have to be more consistent. A group of five guys who have made it all the way to January without playing more than five minutes together is not a group of five guys you'd want to leave on the floor for significant stretches, especially if they're giving up ground to the other team while they're out there. I think the Grizzlies pretty much know what they have now, and to me, that means guys' minutes should start to stabilize. Otherwise they'll never be able to get into a rhythm.
• Jon "Jonny Basketball" "Jonny Badger" Leuer's shooting numbers have fallen off a cliff the last two games. Leuer was 1-6 against Atlanta, 1-5 against Phoenix, both after having a 10 points, 9 rebound night against the Spurs last week. Not sure what's prompting the struggle from Leuer, but he's been an important part of the Grizzlies bench's recent resurgence and the sooner he can get his jumper working again, the better. The Grizzlies need his long-range abilities (and his play around the rim ain't bad either), especially when he's on the floor with Ed Davis and James Johnson.