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Didn’t Happen Overnight: Mike Conley Takes Control

Mike Conley’s development into a stud point guard didn’t happen overnight. But now, he’s a key piece for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Jessica Camerato

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He has reached the point now where he makes it look easy. The way he controls the pace of the floor, knowing when to attack and when to slow things down, understanding how to see the path to the basket before it is created and where to position his teammates for the best shot, it seems effortless.

Mike Conley has figured it out. Now in his seventh NBA season, the point guard is at the helm of a Memphis Grizzlies team that tied up their first round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, 1-1, on Monday. Conley posted 19 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds while only committing two turnovers in the overtime battle.

The way he gets up and down the court seems like second nature, as if he entered the NBA with a built-in ease that instantly spilled on to the floor. The reality is, Conley’s talent is the product of years of hard work, countless hours of game film and the modesty to understand the effort needed to become a dominant player in the league.

Back on January 2, 2008, Conley was feeling on top of the world. He had just made his first NBA start and left the arena pleased with his night against the Indiana Pacers. The rookie had contributed seven points, eight assists, six rebounds and three assists in the Grizzlies’ 18-point win – what wasn’t there to feel good about after that?

Then he watched the game tape. The footage told a different story.

“I felt like I was everywhere – picking people up full court, running everywhere, diving for everything,” Conley recalled. “I looked at the film and I was like, ‘Man, I looked like a mess. I’m all over the place.’ I just had to realize the hard way that I had to do better. I thought I was much better than I was. It was humbling for sure.”

Conley entered the NBA after just one season at The Ohio State University. In spite of his high fourth pick selection, there was still work to be done getting adjusted to the league. The pace of the game was one of the biggest transitions.

He was moving way too fast. Eager to get into the offense, he rushed the flow and made poor passes. The mistakes were apparent in the replays. It was up to Conley to fix them.

He committed himself to watching film – 20 minutes before practice, 30 minutes after practice and another set of DVDs to analyze before bed. Conley had always taken school seriously and this was his new homework.

“I saw the difference between when I was playing out of control and thinking I was playing at a good speed and fast, but I was playing way too fast,” Conley said. “I’d turn the ball over, the team looked out of control. Then when I look at the good clips, when I’m playing quick but not at a fast pace, under control and I’m getting guys the ball and being successful, those things happen when you’re able to control the pace.”

It took Conley two seasons to have a “full grasp” on the pace of the NBA. Every matchup was different, and within each game was a unique set of scenarios to navigate. He broke the action down as precisely as quarter by quarter.

“Early in the first you’re playing a little bit faster than you do in the fourth, and you have to realize you can’t just go out there and take certain shots that you would in the first when it’s the fourth,” he explained.

Each contest was part of the learning process.

Conley’s confidence grew with every season that passed. He credits many in his development, including teammate-turned coach Damon Stoudamire, former assistant coach Johnny Davis, former head coach Lionel Hollins and current head coach David Joerger. The more experience he had, the easier it became for him to control the pace and see the floor clearly.

“I know if I take two dribbles this way, the defender is going to come and I already know that guy in the corner is going to be open. You kind of just have that sense and you know where people are going to be,” Conley said. “I think I’m able to anticipate certain plays and read defenses better. It allows me to have more command of the basketball, knowing where I can get my shot, knowing where I can get other people’s shots, and you can kind of think all this at the same time instead of playing so fast you can only think about one thing or maybe two at the most.”

With more time in the NBA, Conley thinks less about the time on the clock. He liked the shorter NBA shot clock better than college. It allowed him to get up and down the floor and, he noted with a smile, less time required to play defense. But there was still the impending rush with each second that passed. Now he is comfortable playing at a pace in which he can get the ball over half court with 20 seconds left so the Grizzlies can run the offense for what feels like “forever” to him. Conley can gauge the clock based on how many passes his team has made, a mental skill that has come with repetition.

“I always thought that shot clock would count down so quickly early on,” he said. “You can get the feel like, ‘We’ve made six passes in this possession, I know that shot clock is getting down.’ When you get the ball you look up and ok, I know there’s five seconds, let’s go. I’ve got to that point now.”

Before Conley begins calling plays, he is thinking steps ahead of his opponents in order to put his teammates, or himself, in the best position to score. His brain runs a mile a minute in the quick moments after the Grizzlies inbound the ball. He is averaging 11.5 assists in the first two games of the playoffs this season.

“When I’m bringing it up the floor, I’m looking for mismatches,” Conley said. “I’m looking for people out of position, whether they’re late jogging back on defense or early post position for Zach (Randolph) and Marc (Gasol). Normally they like to get down there a little early and if I can get them right away, that’s the easiest bucket for us. But then again, I’m looking to try to create seams and penetrate and try to get in those seams.”

As the Grizzlies fight to take the first round Western Conference series from the Thunder, Conley will be a key leader in the battle. He is now years beyond the rookie who was “all over the place” in his first NBA start.

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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