Conley’s Corner: A vision realized, but not yet complete for Timberwolves’ Mike Conley

Editor’s note: Mike Conley is one of the best sources of information in the NBA.

Entering his 17th NBA season, the 36-year-old Timberwolves point guard has seen it all, and has the knowledge and willingness to explain what’s taken place and what’s to come with the media and, thus, the fans. That breadth of insight and analysis extends from on-court Xs and Os to team dynamics and development.

Conley is just as good at explaining why two teammates came to blows in the middle of a timeout as he is on what the team needs to do to decode a switch-heavy defense.

So who better to sit down with twice a month to tackle different topics ranging from the Timberwolves to the NBA at large to, well, Mike Conley, than Conley himself.

This is the 10th installment of Conley’s Corner.


Anthony Edwards’ Team USA teammates at last summer’s World Championships expressed little optimism toward the Wolves’ prospects this season. Back to the play-in round for the third straight season, they told Edwards.

Mike Conley had a different view of the situation.

Back in September, Conley was discussing his Wolves in a far brighter light. There have only been a handful of times during his career when he entered a season thinking championship. And this just so happened to be one of them.

“I honestly feel like this team, and the way the NBA is set up — the parity that’s come out — it’s more open and there’s more opportunity for more teams than usual, so why not (put) us in that category?” Conley said back then. “I feel like we’ve got a good chance to make those jumps to hopefully get to that point.”

That possibility had him excited to wake up each morning.

“We’re working towards something — playoffs, Western Conference finals, championship aspirations — all these aspirations that we have together as a team,” Conley said.

It’s all come to fruition. Minnesota piled up 56 regular-season wins, enough to grab the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and earn home court for the team’s first-round playoff series against Phoenix.

Conley called it. This season, he noted, has merely matched what he envisioned.

“When you come in with an expectation of being a championship-level team and organization, this would have to be on par with what I expected. I expected us to come out and start the year the way we did. I expected us to have a fire and an edge to us. I expected us to feel slighted, feel the underdog mentality throughout the year. Flew under the radar. All the things that have happened to us throughout the year,” Conley said. “I expected the rollercoaster of emotions — the good weeks, the bad weeks. The expectations now all of a sudden, and guys having to rise up to that — Ant, KAT, Rudy, Naz, everybody who’s played a big role on our team, Jaden. What I think about when I go to bed at night and sleep, dream and hope for, I think it’s been that so far.”

It’s a vision he shared with his teammates, as well as the media, at the season’s outset. It’s difficult to know at times if a player is sharing what he truly believes or if he’s trying to speak his most optimistic scenario into existence. Even now, Conley swears his preseason comments were a product of the former. He truly saw this coming.

“My confidence was at an all-time high, honestly. I honestly felt that, during the summertime, I was like, ‘Man, we could be really, really good,’ ” Conley said. “And I think it started with we have to start our training camp believing this. I told them at the beginning of training camp, like I told you guys, ‘Man, we’re not coming here to win a playoff series. I don’t got time left to just build this thing up and try to win in four years or five years. I want to win now. I want y’all to have my urgency and believe that we can do this.’”

Everyone was in.

“I think everybody really bought into, ‘No, we are the best team. We can be the best team. We can be the best defense. We can work at a different level and sustain that level for longer than any other team can,’” Conley said. “And, so far, we’ve been able to do that.”

Indeed. Minnesota has been one of the most consistent teams in the NBA. Conley believes that night-in, night-out success has bred a deeper understanding from his teammates about what goes into winning in the League.

“I honestly think once you start winning at a decent clip, you start to see the differences of why — when you do lose a game, we lost that game because of these small things, these three little things that we all can control super easy, right? And you might not be aware of that when you’re just out there hooping. You might not know why you won the game, why you lost the game,” Conley said. “But then you start seeing it like, ‘Man, all I had to do all game was just pass across the top, and we’re going to score every single time.’ Or, ‘All I had to do was send the ball to Rudy and let him block the shot. There’s just a bunch of stuff that I think guys are seeing it happen. And once you see it happen, it makes it easier for you to believe in it, easier for you to practice it and kind of practice what you preach.”

That general IQ “bump” is what Conley is most pleased with this season. It’s not only present in defensive assignments, but on the offensive end as star players, starting with Anthony Edwards, have progressed to making the easy, smart pass that gets an offense flowing. It’s carried over to everyone else. Maybe, just maybe, the offense is finally peaking at the right time.

“I think it’s had to morph a couple of times throughout the year. We’ve fought it a couple times. We even fought it as of late. In one or two games we’ll fight it, fight what we need to be and what we want to be doing,” Conley said. “But, at the same time, we still seem to kind of back into a comfort zone where we feel the ball move and see the ball movement and the player movement to where we’re getting quality looks. It’s a matter of if we make or miss shots a lot of those times. And I’ll live and die by us getting the great looks and missing them, as opposed to turning the ball over and trying to drive through three or four people and making mistakes.”

This is about as good as Conley has ever felt about a team heading into the playoffs, rivaling how he felt when Utah, his former team, was a No. 1 seed. No matter what the offense does, what Conley believes makes Minnesota most playoff ready is what it has been able to do on the defensive end. The Timberwolves tout the NBA’s top defense by a mile. That could pay major dividends in the postseason.

“Honestly, I’m a big defense guy. I think defense is where we hang our hat, and I think that’s the real reason why we can play on the road really well,” Conley said. “Obviously, if you get home court, that’s great. But you still have to win on the road in the playoffs, and you might lose one at home, and be able to steal a couple on the road to save a series. It’s important, and we have that ability, and I think that our defense is going to carry us from that standpoint.

“Defensively we have that same power that we had offensively for that (Utah) team. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to guard anybody that we play against. And if we’re able to do what we do on offense at a decently high clip, I think we win a lot of these games and we’re able to move on and advance in the series. I’m confident in what we’ve got coming.”

Minnesota’s defense has been playoff-caliber all season. But Conley knows there’s another notch that needs to be reached if the Wolves are to replicate their regular-season success in the playoffs.

“Right now is basically you’ve been building a foundation for this time of year, and building something you can fall back on no matter what — a standard that you can set going into every game,” Conley said. “But once you hit the playoffs, man, a lot more is required of everybody, especially mentally. It’s paying attention to detail — the scouting report, tendencies of different guys, you’ve got to be able to be on top of it. In the regular season, you might skate by if you’re playing a different team every night, but you have to know exactly what play (it is) when they’re calling it, what they like to do, don’t like to do. That’s where I think we have to take the biggest jump is being locked in on that side mentally.”

Heading into last year’s playoffs, Conley insinuated there was no more time for video games, only to then relent on that belief as the first-round series progressed. So, what’s the final verdict?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can play video games,” Conley conceded. “We just can’t do it all day.”

Because maximum intensity and focus is required starting now. And the point guard knows it. He went to Memphis for a day trip last weekend to attend a Grizzlies game and be a part of Marc Gasol’s jersey retirement. Something from that day stuck with him.

“What I gathered from all that was take advantage of this moment right now. Because I saw a bunch of my old teammates — guys who’ve retired, getting their jersey retired — who were like, ‘Man, we had a squad. We had a chance. If we could’ve done this or won that one game, or just done this differently.’ And you think about it like, ‘Damn, you’re right. We could’ve done this and we could’ve done that,’ ” Conley said. “I don’t want these guys to have that same feeling — that feeling like you left something out there that was attainable at the time, but you were thinking, ‘I might get it next year, or the year after.’ And in Ant’s case, he’s 22, he might say, ‘I’ll get it in my next 10 years. I’ll have plenty of shots.’ But that does not mean that you’ll have the same opportunities that you’ll have now ever again, so just try to grasp onto that and have fun with it.”

This very well may be the best roster ever assembled around Edwards.

“Yep, and he won’t know it until he’s 32 or 33. And he’ll be like, ‘Damn,’ ” Conley said. “One of my best teams was my first playoff run against San Antonio (in 2011, when the Grizzlies upset the Spurs in Round 1). I didn’t think of it at the time, because we were just young and doing our thing, but we had a squad. And it was like, ‘Damn.’ I don’t think we beat the Spurs ever again after that. They killed us. They swept us in the conference finals, everything.”

You can never take a playoff opportunity in the NBA for granted. Conley said the Wolves are carrying an edge into the postseason. They’re ready to roar.

“I still think we’ve got a lot of edge to us, as far as people seeing the Timberwolves successful, it’s not normal for the casual basketball world. So it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re not real,’ or, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re too young, they don’t have this or that,’ ” Conley said. “And we’re like, ‘We’ve got all that.’ We believe in ourselves. We’ve done a great job of just drowning out the noise, for the most part. But the noise we do let in, we use it as motivation. Ant uses it as motivation — KAT, Rudy, Kyle, we’ve got a lot of guys who’ve got a chip on their shoulder, have a lot to prove, myself included. So we just want to go out there and do what we do.”

Past editions of Conley’s Corner:

Made in March

Good guys finish first

The voice of the Wolves

Gameday routine

Small-market Mike

The ultimate sportsman

Last of a dying breed

Championship chase

‘Old guy’ has still got game

Related Articles