The onus falls on Mike Conley, as his Memphis Grizzlies return home to defend their turf

The Memphis Grizzlies don’t lack for direction. They’re not adrift, attempting to figure out a way to keep up with a San Antonio Spurs team that boasted the best record in the Western Conference. After two games in San Antonio, including a close Game 2 overtime defeat, the Grizzlies are rightfully and (to some) expectedly down 0-2.

The team could stand to streamline things, though, against an impressive Spurs outfit that is championship-worthy but still quite beatable. And while most might look toward former All-Star forward Zach Randolph’s return to form as the quickest way between overcoming a tough deficit and creating a best of three series following the team’s return to Memphis, there’s another potential shaker that could put this team over the top. He’s actually been that guy for years, if you think about it, and he answers to the name “Mike Conley.” Unless his dad is in the room.

Conley has not played terribly against the Spurs in the third round, but there is certainly room for improvement. The entire San Antonio defense has gone all out in an attempt to prevent clear post-up position for Randolph, while taking away Marc Gasol’s passing angles from both the high and low post, along with Gasol’s abilities to adapt to a broken play and answer with either a face-up or turnaround jumper. Meanwhile, Tony Allen was baited into shooting 11 times (missing nine of his attempts) in Game 2, and Tayshaun Prince (3-10 in the series, 34.9 percent in the playoffs) has been a mess offensively.

Considering the demands of his workload, Conley may actually be his team’s best offensive player in this series, averaging 16 points and six assists with 2.5 turnovers in the first two games, shooting 42 percent along the way. He helped rescue the Grizzlies from another blowout loss in Game 2 with his play, dishing three fourth quarter assists along with a tough right-handed (Conley, to those perhaps watching Memphis for the first time on Saturday night, is left-handed) push shot in the lane to help Memphis send it to overtime.

And yet, with the eyes of the Spurs focused elsewhere, shouldn’t we engage another gear?

Conley isn’t floating, but he’s not exactly pressing either. The Memphis guard is the longest-tenured player on his team, he has the trust of coach Lionel Hollins and he’s more than overcome the noise from some of us that could not understand why the Grizzlies would not ask Conley to try out restricted free agency as opposed to handing him a five-year, $40 million contract extension at the start of the 2010-11 season. By all accounts he is this team’s steady hand, a needed element in a locker room (one that added the previously combustible Tony Allen during that offseason and the just-as warily-regarded Zach Randolph the summer before) that never loses its edge but still has a chance to lose its mind.

Now, though, if he has it in him? Mike Conley needs to play out of his mind.

He’s not going to be able to shut down Tony Parker. The Spurs All-Star is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 assists in the series thus far, stellar numbers against the West’s best defense, playing in a style that limits possessions and the opportunity for big stats. Worse for Conley is the unfortunate realization that, for long stretches over the first two games, the Spurs have gone away from their offense in order to attack Zach Randolph’s lacking pick and roll defense. San Antonio still has its usual quirks and flourishes away from the ball as Parker dives toward Randolph on either side of the court, but no amount of length and defensive know-how (or the presence of Tony Allen on Parker, instead of Conley) can save poor Zach.

This shouldn’t preclude Conley for trying to counter things on the other end. To attack a San Antonio pick and roll defense that likes to sag and force guys like, say, Mike Conley into hitting makeable midrange jumpers. To attempt to put the sainted Spurs in the penalty early while working at home, as the notoriously home-swayed Joey Crawford is set to work Game 3.

At the very least, even with the knowledge that no team walked the ball up slower than the Memphis Grizzlies this year, Conley can attempt to initiate the team’s offense earlier in the shot clock. Even when Randolph and Gasol are beating their teammates down the court to set up on the blocks, Conley is still waiting too long to make that initial move in a possession the Spurs are 12 seconds into steeling themselves to defend against.

Mike Conley doesn’t have to take a star turn, but he does have to raise his game. He’s a damn good player with a respected game, but those sorts of plaudits aren’t what lead teams to the Finals. Mike Conley is going to have to be the straw that stirs the drink, if Memphis wants to hold serve at home.

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