Mike Conley has been described as underrated and overlooked so many times that it's become a cliche. It's customary for your average NBA observer to rattle off a list of great lead guards, only for their friend to jump in to say Don't forget about Mike Conley. It's basketball boilerplate at this point. Everybody knows Mike Conley is good. People are rating, people are looking.
What we're all seeing is trickier to describe. Conley doesn't have the six-second bursts of Vine brilliance that define his peers. His command of a team isn't as obvious as Chris Paul. He's not the lights-out shooter that Stephen Curry is. His ball-handling, while superb, doesn't jump out at you like Kyrie Irving. He's not as speedy as John Wall. His explosiveness isn't in the same league as Russell Westbrook's. It's hard to process why and how Mike Conley is good, relative to those stars.
But in the context of his team, Conley's brilliance makes sense. His fingerprints are all over the Grizzlies, particularly as they've zipped to a 2-0 series lead over the Blazers. Many top point guards are stars because they can do everything. Conley is a star because he could do everything, yet only does what's necessary.
1. Mike Conley locks down.
Point guard defense is easily misunderstood, yet vitally important. There's a school of thought that point guard defense doesn't matter because nobody can play it in this anti-handcheck era. Mike Conley singlehandily proves that wrong.
Just ask Damian Lillard. The Blazers' point guard was a playoff hero last year, carving up the acclaimed Patrick Beverley and eventually sinking Houston's hopes with one memorable buzzer beater. He's being eaten alive by Conley in this series.
When Lillard rubs off a high screen, Conley is there. When Lillard loops around to step into his patented 27-foot bomb, Conley is there. When Lillard pushes forward in an attempt to attack the tin, Conley is there. It's as if Lillard is looking at a portable mirror.
Lillard is a two-time All-Star. Conley's defense makes him look like John Bagley.
2. Mike Conley funnels.
This isn't the same as locking down, but it's arguably more important. Conley knows the Grizzlies' defense is great because all five players execute a system. His job is not to stop Damian Lillard so much as it is to push Lillard to the areas on the floor where he can be stopped. That means cajoling Lillard into the jaws of his help defenders like a Venus Fly Trap.
Here, Conley has a built-in advantage. Marc Gasol is a former Defensive Player of the Year, and the Grizzlies' core has been together for a long time. Lillard is playing without his best three-point shooter and his replacement starting shooting guard. Still, no other Lillard defender -- not Tony Allen, not Courtney Lee and definitely not Beno Udrih -- has the discipline and dogged pursuit to slip around and through screens to force Lillard into uncomfortable spots on the court.
3. Mike Conley manages an offense.
This sounds like more boilerplate, and yet it is incredibly meaningful. While Lillard hunts his own shots, Conley is seeking hockey assists. These don't come easily, especially not for a point guard quarterbacking a two-post offense in the spacing era. Yet Conley finds ways to make it happen.
There's a certain flow great passing point guards require, and Conley has that flow. It's not enough to run through or cautiously brush off a pick and roll. There's an art to the timing required. Conley must wait until his big man is set, then fool the defender into coming just a little out of his stance before zooming through the screen. Watch how Conley gives Lillard a false sense of security before sprinting into a double screen for this dribble handoff.
4. Mike Conley slips through the cracks.
There isn't a lot of space in the Grizzlies' offense, so a point guard needs to be able to maneuver in tight spaces. When Conley does choose to attack, he does so in jagged lines. He's fooling defenders into thinking he's going one way, then plants and darts the other.
Look at this stop, drop and roll routine to seal Game 2.
This applies to passing too. Every point guard must throw sound pocket passes. Few point guards must throw sound pocket passes through a tiny hole in the wall. This is the tiny hole that the Grizzlies' offense provides.
5. Mike Conley reads defenses.
Actually, he plays tricks on defenses like the weird fisherman dangling a dollar bill in that State Farm commercial. The Blazers tried pushing Conley to the left baseline on three possessions in a row early in the third quarter of Game 2, hoping they could swarm him with bodies and cut off any passing angle. Conley told the Blazers to bring it on. He went right into the danger zone, kept his dribble alive, turned his head just long enough for the fourth defender to relax and hit Tony Allen charging down the lane.
On the next play, he just held the ball until the referee had to call a defensive three seconds. A couple minutes later, Conley waited for Lillard to engage in some defensive hero ball and found Lillard's man, Courtney Lee, at the top of the key.
Multiple defenders were staring down Conley's face from the worst possible angle on the floor. He still had the poise to know that the opponent furthest from the play determined his decision.
6. Mike Conley deflects praise.
Lots of point guards are unselfish only to the point where they want everyone to know they're unselfish. They don't score, sure, but they sure as hell want people to recognize that they don't score. It's only natural to want to be known as a nice person that helps other people.
Mike Conley isn't like that. His first two answers to TNT's Lewis Johnson after the game focused on his team's defense and Tony Allen's play. The defensive effort was something he fueled, but he described it as an anthropomorphous being that he didn't control. Allen did the stuff he does all the time, but even he would say Conley was the key to the victory.
This is the attitude of a point guard that plays like he has multiple alarm clocks reminding him when his teammates need to touch the ball.
7. Mike Conley plays hurt.
He has a foot injury that feels like this.
And is located here.
He won't complain about it because he never does. It's not like he needs to be healthy to control a series, anyway.