Grizzlies’ gritty D to be tested by Warriors without Conley
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — To the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s simply grit and grind. Harass opponents from one end of the court to the other, frustrating players into missing shots and forcing turnovers until they lose their offensive rhythm.
Tony Allen calls it shutting off the water.
Now they will try to slow down the NBA’s top-scoring team when they meet the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals, and they may have to do it without one of their best defenders. Point guard Mike Conley is recovering from surgery Monday to repair broken bones in his left cheek.
Conley will travel with Memphis to Golden State, but his playing status is unclear. He has defended the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker, and would defend Stephen Curry if he plays.
“Expect the worst, and if something better happens, then woo-hoo,” Joerger said Friday.
The Grizzlies know any chance of reaching their second Western finals in three years depends on defense starting Sunday with Game 1 at Golden State.
“It’s as simple as that, defense and defensive possessions with rebounds,” All-Star center Marc Gasol said. “It’s always our key. That’s the only way we know how to win and it’s the only way we can win. We are not going to score a team high of 120 points or 115. I mean, it might happen one time but we definitely can’t win a series doing that.”
The Grizzlies have ranked among the NBA’s best defensive squads each of their past five seasons advancing to the playoffs. This season they ranked second in fewest points allowed during the season (95.1). Conley’s value to their defense never was more stark than in their opening series against Portland.
With Conley, the Grizzlies held the Trail Blazers in the 80s through the first two games in the playoffs, well under their scoring average of 102.8 points during the season. Then CJ McCollum’s elbow caught Conley in the face in Game 3. Without Conley, Portland scored in the 90s in the final two games with Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih trying to replace him.
“Mike Conley is as tremendous of an athlete as you’ll ever see, and he has a big heart,” Joerger said. “He’s able to stay in front of speed guys as well as anybody in the league. The guys that give him problems are the bigger and stronger guys like Westbrook and guys like that. Especially against speed guys, he can match speed for speed with anybody.”
Conley has plenty of company playing sticky defense.
Gasol was the league’s defensive player of the year in 2013, and he ranked among the league’s best shot blockers (1.62) this season. Allen has been on the All-Defensive team three times and finished seventh in voting for the defensive player this season. He ranked third with 2.05 steals per game behind only Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.
Allen said coming together without Conley obviously is motivation for the Grizzlies.
“We have to hold down the fort until he gets back,” Allen said. “You have to pull in as a unit. It can’t be one guy who can take over what Mike can do. We have to do it as a committee. We’re hoping he gets better and has a speedy recovery.”
Memphis also had the top three defensive players in the NBA this season based on points allowed per 100 possessions led by Calathes (92.9), Kosta Koufos (94.8) and Allen (94.9 points) among those playing in at least 55 games.
Zach Randolph, known more for his double-doubles than his defense, helped hold LaMarcus Aldridge to 37 of 112 shooting in their opening series with Portland.
Even with Golden State leading the NBA scoring 109.7 points per game, this series could feature some good defense all around. The Warriors led the league in defensive efficiency and are anchored by Draymond Green, who got more first-place votes for defensive player of the year than anyone else.
The Grizzlies are expecting Conley to rejoin them, even if they don’t know when.
“One thing about Mike, he’s a warrior, and he’s trying to play as soon as he can,” Randolph said. “He’s not going to just sit down. He’s going to play if he can play.”
AP freelance writer Clay Bailey contributed to this report.