Is there a more singular performance in Grizzlies history than Mike Conley’s triumphant return from an excruciating broken face to stun the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals?
It is unquestionably one of the most memorable games in Grizzlies lore, and is almost certainly the most important game of Conley’s career. It was the moment he ascended past the “most underrated” moniker and firmly into the upper echelon of NBA talent. It was a team’s identity encapsulated in the form of one man, arguably the grittiest solo show of the Grit N’ Grind era.
My question, though, is what if Conley had caromed off C.J. McCollum’s elbow without suffering three fractures around his left eye and jaw in Game 3 of the Grizzlies opening round series against the Portland Trail Blazers? What would have changed, and would any of those changes have made a difference?
Conley missed three games in the 2015 playoffs before making his valiant comeback at Oracle Arena. In that time the Grizzlies went 1-2 (1-1 vs. Portland, 0-1 vs. Golden State), clinching a series victory over the Blazers in the process.
Conley’s absence didn’t have much of an affect on the Portland series. Maybe Memphis would have swept the Blazers had he been fit to play, but that’s not the series that matters. Where Conley’s absence/lack of full physical abilities affected the Grizzlies most was in their bout against the future champions.
Before getting into that series, though, let’s just make clear that Conley definitely played worse after sustaining his face injury. I know that’s not a huge logical leap, but just hear me out.
During the 2015 playoffs Conley averaged 14.1 points per contest, the second worst of his six years of playoff basketball, while shooting just 30.3 percent from three. He registered the least amount of assists per game of his playoff career and held an offensive rating of 108, starkly less than his gargantuan 125 from his next trip to the playoffs in 2017 (he was injured again in 2016).
Some of these numbers are inflated by his performance in the first two and a half games against Portland, but his advanced numbers—like his 1.11 wins produced per 48 minutes rate and 17.5 player efficiency rating—also show that he produced somewhat well.
Not decent enough after Game 2, however. In a Game 3 win at home, Conley scored 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting and added five assists. His plus/minus was an even zero. He had a net rating of -1, only surpassed by Tony Allen’s incredible -22, which consisted of an offensive (note: pun intended) rating of 64 and a defensive rating of 86, both of which are stupendously shocking and totally believable in their own ways.
In Game 4 he scored 10 points on 26.7 percent shooting with seven assists and three steals en route to a loss. His -16 +/- was third worst that night and his offensive rating of 75 was worst of players to play more than two minutes.
Game 5 he was pretty well, putting up 13 points on 50 percent shooting with five assists and three steals in another large loss. But in the Game 6 clincher, one that was closer than the 108-95 scoreline suggests, he didn’t bring it. He registered only 11 points on 23.1 percent shooting and 0-of-6 shooting from three. He did record nine assists though.
These numbers do not act as an indictment of Conley’s performance. It is, to this day, freaking incredible that he could even play in those five games, period, let alone, score or pass with anything resembling NBA-level ability. Those numbers, however, do show that the face injury plagued him on the floor more than we tend to remember, probably because we equate that series with the appropriately lauded “mask game.”
Let’s take all those mediocre to sub-par performances post-“mask game” and pretend like he would have produced at an average level. Would anything have changed?
In Games 1, 4, and 5, nothing probably changes, though maybe the Warriors’ margin of victory might not have been so large. Game 6, on the other hand, could have been a very different game had Conley shot, say, 7-of-13 from the field and 3-of-6 from three. That albeit arbitrary change alone would have given him 22 points for the game--not including any possible and-one free throw attempts—and would have closed the gap to two. That swing in play constitutes a large enough difference that the end result of the game easily could have been altered in favor of the Grizzlies, forcing a Game 7 in Oakland.
Of course this is a convoluted and arbitrary distinction, and maybe the Grizzlies would have been swept had Conley’s face not fractured. In all likelihood the Warriors would have won the series anyway, as they figured out that Tony Allen’s inability to play on the offensive end was the key to beating the Grizzlies.
But it’s a decent bet to think the series would have been tighter had Conley been 100%.
While the Grizzlies’ Grit N’ Grind legacy had already been forever cemented, Conley’s had not. If Conley replicates his “mask game” performance—22 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 3-of-6 shooting from deep—without the injury, that’s just another night at the office for him. There’s nothing particularly special about those numbers if you don’t provide the right context. Without the heroics of playing injured, he loses that seminal moment in his career, the moment his stardom was born and his status in Memphis lore was solidified.
Maybe he works even harder to escape the shadow of being called the most underrated player in the league. Or maybe he’s crushed by the pressure of it. I tend to think the reality would fall somewhere in the middle of those two, but any way you slice it, the Mike Conley we know today would not be the same player without the “mask game.” Though the team and he would have played better had he not suffered that awful injury, his name and his legacy would continue to shine dimly, instead of brightly.
So, maybe, it was best for everyone how things turned out. I doubt the Warriors series would have changed drastically had Memphis had a healthy Conley, and his own reputation has flourished ever since that game. Somehow, I think what happened ended up being the best for him, the team, and the fans.
He made the most of a bad situation and the organization and fans have never forgotten.