By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Mike Conley has learned he can’t just rely on his quickness to be one of the best point guards in the NBA.
So he bulked up and got stronger.
Conley said he has added some muscle to his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame. He feels the added bulk is helping him finish plays in traffic — like he did against San Antonio. Conley took the contact from the Spurs 6-6, 220-pound Danny Green but still scored game-winning layup with 0.6 seconds to play.
“He’s much stronger and much more mature,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said of the 25-year-old Conley.
“He knows how to pace himself a little better. Plus as you saw when he was in there with J.B. (Jerryd Bayless), J.B. was doing all the work and Mike was just waiting for an open shot. Sometimes that helps as well. He has gotten stronger, and he has just gotten better. He made the big three, and then he made the layup to win the game and that was huge for us.”
The six-year veteran is having his best season yet just as the Grizzlies push to start the postseason with home-court advantage for a second straight year. The Grizzlies (50-24) are tied with Denver (50-24) and have a 1.5 game lead over the Clippers in the push for the No. 3 and 4 seeds in the Western Conference. They start a three-game road swing Wednesday night at Portland.
Conley has improved in nearly every category since the All Star break. During March, he averaged 17.6 points a game with 7.2 assists, including a career-best 15 on March 12 at Portland. The Grizzlies now are 10-3 this season when Conley scores 20 or more points, and he’s done that now six times since March 18 counting his 23 points against the Spurs.
The guard didn’t manage a steal against San Antonio, snapping a 64-game steals streak that had been the longest active streak in the NBA. Since Conley was born Oct. 11, 1987, only Michael Jordan and Chris Paul have had steals streaks that long. He’s second this season in the league averaging 2.28 steals per game behind only Paul.
Spurs guard Tony Parker said he thinks Conley is among the NBA’s top 10 point guards.
“He’s very good defensively, one of the best in steals and offensively, he’s always trying to get everyone involved because he has great guys inside with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph at the same time,” Parker said. “I’m very happy for him. He’s definitely improving every year.”
The Grizzlies have been committed to Conley since drafting him fourth overall in 2007 out of Ohio State, even though they faced plenty of questions in 2010 when they gave him a multi-year contract extension. He now is under contract through the 2015-16 season.
After the Grizzlies lost their first-round playoff series in seven games to the Clippers last year, Conley worked to add extra muscle to help him thrive throughout the 82-game season. He said he’s seeing the results because he’s not as tired late in games.
The addition of Bayless in the offseason also has been a boon for Conley. Bayless helps spell Conley, but Hollins also uses the guards together. The combination worked perfectly Monday night as Bayless scored eight and Conley 11 in the fourth quarter.
“If I don’t have to guard Tony Parker, their star player, it will give me a little rest,” Conley said. ” Offensively, he is able to handle the ball and make plays for us and hit big shots.”
Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph says he’s seen a lot of improvement out of Conley and that the guard can be considered the Grizzlies’ most improved player since the team traded away Rudy Gay on Jan. 30.
“He’s constantly getting better on the court and being a leader, putting players in the right position,” Randolph said. “So I’m happy for the young fellow. Sky’s the limit for him.”
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