The Memphis Grizzlies looked markedly inferior to the Golden State Warriors without Mike Conley in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Based on the results of Tuesday night's Game 2 at Oracle Arena, their star point guard's return appears to have changed the dynamics of the series.
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The Grizzlies dictated the terms of the game from the opening tip to the final whistle while putting together an extremely impressive 97-90 win to hand the Warriors their first loss of the postseason and third home loss of the 2014-15 season. Conley came back from a three-game and 10-day absence due to several facial fractures and starred while wearing a protective mask, scoring a game-high 22 points (8-of-12 FG and 3-of-6 3FG) and keeping the tempo near the Grizzlies' ideal rate. Yet this was a team effort — Tony Allen keyed a tremendous defensive effort that locked down Splash Brothers Klay Thompson and newly crowned MVP Stephen Curry, who accepted his award in a ceremony just prior to the game. It was clear before the start of this series that the Grizzlies would need to get Conley back in order to beat the best team of the regular season, and Game 2 was close to a perfect example of how they can move on to the conference finals.
Conley indicated that he was in excellent form by making his first four shots for nine points before heading to the bench at the 5:52 mark of the first quarter. He looked every bit the player we have come to expect, knocking down a three-pointer and a trio of mid-range jumpers within the flow of the Memphis offense. Conley showed no discomfort with the mask or his ongoing right foot ailment. The early exit suggested that his minutes would be limited — he ended up playing 27 — but it was clear that he could make the impact necessary to put the Grizzlies in line for the series-tying win.
The visitors got another break early on when Draymond Green picked up two fouls and an accompanying technical in the first 3:10 of the game, sending him to the bench and robbing the Warriors of the matchup that best allowed them to space the floor in Game 1. With the more traditional power forward David Lee in the lineup, Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph was able to play closer to the paint at both ends and find a comfort zone early. He scored 10 points (3-of-7 FG, 4-of-4 FT) in the first quarter to help Memphis establish the interior and generally control the form of the game. Both Randolph and center Marc Gasol eventually sat late in the period with two fouls apiece, but the Grizzlies still managed a 28-22 lead through one.
Golden State has proven an ability to go on game-shifting runs throughout this season, and they appeared on the brink of regaining control throughout the second period. Leandro Barbosa scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting over the end of the first and start of the second to cut the score to 32-30, but Memphis kept making big plays to push the lead back up to multiple possessions. The Warriors looked set to break out in several moments but shot only 6-of-19 in the quarter for 17 points, giving them fewer than 40 in the first half for the second time all season. The team struggled to shoot almost across the board (14-of-38 from the field and 4-of-14 from deep), but Klay Thompson looked particularly out of sorts with five points on 2-of-9 shooting and numerous bad decisions. This single possession featured both a one-legged three-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock and a missed dunk with no real defensive pressure. Maybe we should label it NSFW:
It's hard to say how much of this raggedness was due to the Warriors ineptitude, but the Grizzlies reaped the benefits regardless. Even when they weren't playing especially well, Memphis looked content to continue with the favored grit-and-grind style, confident that it would eventually work to their advantage. It's telling that, even when the Warriors cut the deficit to just two points late in the half, the Grizzlies were able to rebuild a double-digit lead with a 9-0 run over the final 1:15 to enter the break up 50-39.
The Warriors didn't do much to change the structure of the game in the second half. The shooting was never really there for Golden State, which shot 41.7 from the field and 6-of-26 (and 3-of-22 for the starters) on three-pointers. Curry and Thompson never got going under excellent defense from Conley and especially Tony Allen, who finished with four steals. He let everyone know about his reputation after one of those thefts:
For a team with the league's fastest and second-most efficient offense, the Warriors looked to lack a clear offensive identity in Game 2. They often pushed the ball simply for the sake of increasing the pace, and Curry became an off-ball afterthought on too many possessions in the second and third quarters. Golden State technically won the second half 51-47, but they only seemed to threaten Memphis for isolated moments before yielding control back to the visitors. A team used to sustaining excellence for full games succeeded only in fits and starts.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies grinded through offensive possessions that often ended in tough but makeable mid-range jumpers for Z-Bo and Gasol, who combined for 35 points on 12-of-26 from the field and 11-of-12 from the line. These plays often looked a bit ugly, in keeping with the Grizzlies' offensive limitations, but the end results allowed them to keep the Warriors at bay and ensure that there would not be any comeback. As a plus, the Grizzlies were quick to loose balls and picked up several huge offensive rebounds in key moments.
Conley deserves the bulk of the credit for this improvement. While his stats tell some of the story, the veteran's mere presence organizes the Grizzlies at both ends, particularly when it comes to their offensive spacing and overall flow. This was a terrific performance in which he proved that he can make an impact moving forward in the series. Anyone who feared his facial injuries would deter him was disabused of that notion in the second quarter, when he fell to the floor to call a timeout and was hit in the face by Draymond Green (presumably inadvertently):
Despite this fantastic win, there is no guarantee that the Grizzlies can repeat the performance again in this series. While the Warriors will need to prove they can rebound from a loss for the first time in this postseason, they are a far more capable team than they showed on Tuesday and should return with renewed focus and determination for Saturday's Game 3. It's not clear what caused this dud, but it's fair to assume that this 67-win team can do better moving forward. For that matter, the Grizzlies would have looked a lot different if a few of those tough mid-range jumpers hadn't fallen. There's often a thin line between ugly dominance and plain old ugliness.
However, that's really just a silver lining for the West's No. 1 seed. The Grizzlies just cleared the biggest hurdle for either team in this series — winning a game on the road at Oracle — and will head home to FedEx Forum with a deservedly high level of confidence. What looked like a very tough series for Memphis is now clearly up for grabs.
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