By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
PHILADELPHIA – Even at the height of the Grizzlies’ Grit’N’Grind era, when Memphis was pummeling teams as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph pounded the paint, point guard Mike Conley felt squeezed.
“There were a lot of times in previous seasons I would come down the court and there would be nowhere to go,” Conley said of a style that made Memphis a perennial playoff contender that reached the conference finals in 2013. “Now, with our spacing and the way we’ve changed things, I see so many opportunities and I can go at any point and make a play. With space, it allows more opportunity.”
And with space, Conley is soaring. It’s not by coincidence that the 10-year veteran is off to the most prolific start of his career at the same time first-year coach David Fizdale has installed a new offense designed to maximize Conley’s array of skills. For years, Conley has waited his turn under previous systems intended to calibrate Gasol’s versatility and Randolph’s menu of isolation options inside.
But with Gasol now spacing his game out to the three-point line and Randolph adjusting seamlessly – albeit uncomfortably, at times – to coming off the bench, Conley is in the initial stages of his strongest case yet to land that first All-Star berth of his career. Conley is coming off his third 30-point game of the season as the Grizzlies (9-5) face the 76ers on Wednesday looking to extend a five-game winning streak.
Conley is averaging 19.2 points, 5.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 32.6 minutes a game. His player efficiency rating is as high as it’s ever been, and he is tied with J.J. Redick for the league’s top three-point shooting percentage (49.3). So what’s been different in Conley’s approach this season?
“I’m trying to be more aggressive and I’m also making plays for other guys,” said Conley, who’s shooting 57.1 percent on threes and 50.8 percent overall during the streak. “Our defense has been key for us in the last five or six games. The mentality that we’ve come in with every game has gotten us off to good starts, which is something we didn’t come in with at the beginning of the season. And we’re relying on each other and we’re trusting each other. Guys are playing out of their minds because of it.”
Those quick starts have been key, with Conley setting the tone and Gasol facilitating the offense. The Grizzlies scored a season-high 69 points in the first half of Monday’s win in Charlotte and also blitzed another of the NBA’s top defenses for 61 first-half points on the way to beating the Clippers last week. Conley knew he would face scrutiny after signing the richest five-year contract in league history last summer to remain in Memphis on a $153 million deal.
So far, he’s outplayed Chris Paul in two matchups; shooting better from the field than Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas; sitting 33 spots ahead of Steph Curry in the three-point percentage rankings; and has a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Westbrook, Curry and Damian Lillard. Fizdale entered training camp vowing that Conley would have his All-Star breakthrough this season. He likes what he’s seeing from his point guard in the early stages of the season.
“Obviously, what can I say about Mike Conley?” Fizdale said. “He’s getting closer and closer to the guy I want him to be, the killer that I want him to be. I’m really proud of his openness to it and just really trying to adapt to what I want him to be.”
Grizzlies swingman James Ennis underwent an MRI on his injured calf Tuesday in Philadelphia that revealed a deep calf strain and will miss tonight’s game. Ennis suffered the injury in the first half of Monday’s win in Charlotte and will be reevaluated in two weeks. Chandler Parsons (knee) and Brandan Wright (ankle) are out. For the Sixers, former Grizzlies guard Jerryd Bayless (wrist) made his season debut in Monday’s win over Miami and is probable. Forwards Nerlens Noel (knee) and rookie No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons (foot) are out and have yet to play this season.
30 & 10. Those are the respective jersey numbers belonging to Troy Daniels and Troy Williams. With both Ennis and Parsons likely sidelined another week or two, the Grizzlies are razor thin on wing depth. Veterans Tony Allen and Vince Carter and rookie Andrew Harrison will get the bulk of those minutes, but there may be an opening for Daniels to emerge if given an opportunity. Daniels, signed in free agency along with Parsons to bolster Memphis’ three-point shooting, has largely disappointed in his limited playing time. Since the start of the preseason, Daniels has yet to hit a three-pointer in a Grizzlies’ uniform. Meanwhile, Williams’ combination of size (6-7), athleticism and scoring should make the rookie an emergency option for rotation duty in this stretch of nine games in 14 days.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Joel Embiid. After overcoming foot injuries that derailed his first two NBA seasons, Embiid is make up for lost time. Despite being limited by a 24-minute playing time restriction, the 7-footer is in the midst of a breakout stretch, averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 23 minutes during a four-game home win streak entering Wednesday’s matchup with Gasol. Embiid is shooting 48.8 percent from the field overall and 50 from three-point range in the win streak. His ceiling is Tim Duncan and his floor is Greg Oden. But Embiid’s versatile skillset is as fun to watch as his infectious personality. What’s most impressive about the player now introduced at home games as ‘The Process’ is his willingness to study and learn from top centers. Embiid spent time conferring with Gasol after last month’s preseason game in Memphis.
Fizdale on his team embracing its defensive identity –
Our guys are really taking pride in trying to build a championship defense. They are really digging in and really taking it to heart that we have to get stops. We’re always saying our defense will travel … I said, ‘Guys, we’re from Memphis. There’s nothing cool about us. We’re gritty, and don’t lose that edge.’ They knew exactly what I meant.
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