OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Conley might still have that smile of a schoolboy, but the Memphis Grizzlies point guard now has the courage of a warrior.
In years past, Conley might mot have taken the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:58 to go. He might have passed on the jumper over 6-foot-7 defender Thabo Sefolosha with 1:04 left that hit nothing but net. But this is Conley now: calm and cool when his team must have it.
“That’s how he’s grown as a player,” teammate Zach Randolph said following Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that tied the Western Conference semifinal at 1-1 with three days off before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis.
Only moments earlier during a fantastic fourth quarter that boasted five ties and five lead changes in a game that had 27 in all, Kevin Durant looked to be composing yet another masterpiece. He was closing in on his first career playoff triple-double and OKC was nearing a 2-0 series lead, a mere two nights after he sank the game-winner with 11.1 seconds to go.
Neither would come to pass.
Durant missed his final three shots and lost the ball with less than a minute to play, with Memphis leading 94-90. Bulldog defender Tony Allen, who said he finally got paired up on Durant in Game 2 out of desperation, stepped back instead of putting his body on Durant as he turned his back to the basket to gain leverage on the smaller Allen. Durant lost his balance, fell to the floor and lost the ball.
“That was just a last-minute thought in my head,” Allen said. “I just thought it would work and I was fortunate enough for it to work.”
Durant finished with 36 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, Durant’s fingerprints are everywhere as he brings the ball up the floor and sets the attack or calls for the ball almost as quickly as point guard Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court.
ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out a telling stat after the game: Durant has averaged 264 dribbles per game since Westbrook’s injury. His season average was 134. Thunder forward-center Nick Collison was asked if Durant has to do too much in crunch time: “I mean, what are we going to do?” Collison said.
Durant certainly was in control until it slipped away late. He started the fourth quarter 4-for-4, but ended it 0-for-3. Meanwhile, the quiet Conley drained five of six shots for 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting, nine assists and 10 rebounds.
Allen, perhaps Conley’s biggest fan, took responsibility for the missed triple-double with his errant attempt from under the bucket after Conley had secured an offensive rebound with 1:23 to go.
“I’ve been saying it for a long time, he’s up-and-coming,” Allen said. “Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league whether anybody likes it or not. I know a lot of people got their favorites and who they think should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now. He’s able to do these things on the court night-in and night-out.”
On this night his performance was huge. A 2-0 deficit is not the end of the series — the Grizzlies proved that last round when Conley and Co. took down Chris Paul and the Clippers in four straight after falling into the 0-2 hole — but it’s not the way anybody wants to go about a series with the West finals at stake.
Conley’s 26 points tied his regular-season high. So did his 11 field goals. His season-best rebounding game was seven. Conley got that number in the fourth quarter alone.
He’s scored at least 20 points in these playoffs four times, has dished out at least nine assists four times and has put up three double-doubles. And it’s the second time now he’s rebounded from an otherwise dull night with a big effort.
On Tuesday, Conley, just 25 and in his sixth season with Memphis, was aggressive, streaking into the lane and finding teammates. And with the Thunder sagging down heavily to defend Marc Gasol and Randolph, Conley took the jumpers afforded him.
Having already dispatched Paul in the first round, and with the injured Westbrook watching from high above in a suite, Conley is taking control.
“I didn’t come in looking at it like that. I came in looking at if that what I need to do for our team to win, I’ll do it,” Conley said. “If I have to score, I’ll score. I have to be a facilitator, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win.”