Mike Conley might be a Johnny Come Lately figure to casual NBA fans who paid little mind to the Memphis Grizzlies before their ouster of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.
Conley has been a breakout star of the playoffs, but coach Lionel Hollins credits Conley with steering the Grizzlies all season and emerging as a leader after the January trade of leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto.
It was the latest show of support by Hollins, who encouraged management to retain Conley and part with Kyle Lowry instead. Hollins made Conley a starter and backed the decision to give him a five-year, $45 million contract that raised eyebrows from even staunch supporters of the former Ohio State star.
"I came in and was like, 'Why? Why are we talking about trading him,'" Hollins said. "Why don't we put this guy out there and see if he can play before you go trade him?"
And play he has.
Zach Randolph is the Grizzlies' leading scorer with Gay gone, but Conley has led the team with 16.4 points and 6.8 assists since Gay was dealt. He has also emerged as the go-to option in tight moments, delivering repeatedly against Chris Paul and the Clippers and in the 4-1 series victory over Oklahoma City to send Memphis to the conference finals.
"After we lost Rudy, it was tough," Conley said. "We didn't know who was going to be that guy down the stretch. I've kind of had to assume that role, grow into it and live and learn from it."
His counterpart, San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, is a 12-year veteran - a trusted All-Star who was an MVP candidate until he was felled by an ankle injury late in the season. Coach Gregg Popovich erred on the side of caution, keeping Parker out of 11 games, and watched his offense slog through contests without him.
The upshot of the injury to Parker and health-related absences of several other prime contributors for Popovich was the development of quality depth. Parker led the team with 20.3 points per game, but relative no-names Danny Green, Gary Neal and D-League product Cory Joseph contributed heavily to series wins over the Warriors and Lakers, not to mention usual contributions from Manu Ginobili and spot duty from Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair.
With more options in his rotation, the matchups -- and potential adjustments -- favor the sagacious Popovich.
The Spurs are also driven by their failure in this very spot last season. San Antonio led Oklahoma City 2-0 in the 2012 NBA Finals.
"We were disappointed last year being up 2-0, having home court, not being able to go to the Finals. It gives us a lot of fuel for this year," said Parker. "I think everybody in the team, we all want to go one more time. It's been a long time -- since 2007 we didn't go to the Finals. I think everybody understands ... opportunities don't come very often. Last year we missed one, a close one. We were two games away from the Finals."
Popovich, never one to tip his hand with information or intel, claimed ignorance when asked for his early thoughts on Sunday's conference finals opener.
"I do know they've had a heck of a year, along with Indiana and Miami, you can argue who is the best defensive team," he said of the Grizzlies. "They're gritty, talented. Be a heck of a challenge."