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Mike Conley’s Return Spoils Stephen Curry’s MVP Reception, Propels Grizzlies To 97-90 Game 2 Win

On the night where Stephen Curry was honored in a pregame ceremony for being voted league MVP, he was upstaged by the man who’s simply his team’s MVP: Mike Conley.

After missing the end of the Portland series as well as Sunday’s Game 1 loss to Golden State with facial fractures, Conley was upgraded from doubtful to questionable and decided to give it a go. His impact was immediately felt, as Memphis snatched the lead from the start thanks to his nine points on a perfect 4-4 from the floor. Conley plus 14 points in the paint put the Grizzlies up 28-22 after one.

Due to early foul trouble for Marc Gasol and Draymond Green, along with heavier-than-normal rest for the recovering Conley and injury-prone Andrew Bogut, the first half featured some freaky lineups. The Warriors briefly used an ineffective David Lee in a Curry/Thompson/Iguodala/Lee/Ezeli lineup, the only time they went conventionally big all game. Then a Warriors unit with Marreese Speights at center faced off of against a two-center lineup for Memphis that featured Kosta Koufos alongside Gasol. When Gasol picked up his third foul, the big and burly Grizzlies went small, utilizing a Conley/Allen/Carter/Green/Randolph grouping. And yet, none of these off-beat lineups were the most impactful. More on that in a bit.

Always the lurking shark in the water, especially at home, Golden State kept pressuring, cutting the lead to two. However, they just couldn’t find that extra gear, exemplified by botching a 3-on-1 fastbreak and this comically bad sequence from Klay Thompson:

Memphis led 50-39 at the half, and went up by as much as 16 after a pair of Conley free throws midway through the third quarter. At that point, Warriors coach Steve Kerr went to the joker he always holds up his sleeve: his super small lineup.

In removing Bogut for Andre Iguodala, the Warriors had the Curry/Thompson/Iguodala/Barnes/Green unit that has served them so well at times during the season. They ramped up the energy of the game and made it very hard for Memphis to control the tempo, something only exacerbated by Conley being on the bench. The energy of the players on court plus the crowd sensing their surge made it appear as if the oven had been cranked to 400 degrees, but four key sequences helped the Grizz stem the tide.

1. Courtney Lee missed a bad shot near the end of a messy possession caused by frantic Warriors defense. The double-edged sword of that super small lineup though is that it leaves a team, well, super small. Randolph scooped up the rebound and found Lee, now in the corner, just a couple feet away and he cashed in his second chance for a three.

2. On a fast break, Tony Allen made one of his many standout defensive plays of Game 2:

3. With the chance to cut the lead to five at 71-63, Curry had a wide open look in transition … and missed. It was perhaps his most surprising miss on a night in which there were many to choose from, considering he went a stunning 2-11 from beyond the arc.

4. On yet another bad possession, this time a Carter three from way downtown, the Grizzlies managed to get the offensive rebound, as Lee snared it and, despite forcing a shot a tad sooner than necessary in fear of the quarter ending, nailed a jumper.

Golden State would narrow the deficit to seven at multiple points in the fourth. Every time Memphis found an answer. Randolph was a beast in the post, while Allen continued his suffocating defense (Thompson went 6-15 from the floor and 1-6 from three en route to just 13 points) and even converted it into offense on a “pick six” steal, all while verbalizing “First Team All-Defense!” to those watching, as if they needed a reminder.

Fittingly, Conley shut the door with a three to make it 90-80. He left the game with leg cramps (this after taking a hit to the face from Draymond earlier in the game too), and came to the rescue yet again, returning when Memphis was unable to break Golden State’s press defense without him.

The man with the broken face stole the show from the man with the baby face, outscoring the sharpshooter 22 to 19, and outshooting him to boot, going 8-12 as opposed to Curry’s 7-19, and doing so in significantly less floor time.

This was essentially the perfect game for Memphis: Golden State, who lost at home for just the third time all season, and for the first time since a wild January contest against Chicago, missed easy looks at the rim and from three, while Conley provided a calming presence along with vital spacing. Not every game will swing this far in their favor, though anyone expecting Curry and Thompson to get 100 percent back to their regular level of play is misguided. So long as Conley can play, no backcourt is better suited to neutralize their long-range attack.

Golden State is still the heavy favorite, but these Grizz are a battle-tested group, and not even these Warriors can be expected to sweep both games in the Grindhouse. This means this is likely to head back to the Bay at two games apiece, with a whole lot of wear and tear in between, according to Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, who was glad his team was more physical than in Game 1, but noted, “We’ll get more physical. Tonight was OK.”

Sounds like this series is just getting started.

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