Mike Conley on verge of stardom as Grizzlies on verge of elimination

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Where is the line between the NBA’s stars and the league’s merely good players?

Star is such a loaded term – full of reputation and production and marketing and talent and style – that, occasionally, it can be useful to sort through all the distractions and look at objective measures.

Let’s examine players in order of regular-season win shares. Stop me when I name a player who’s not a star. I’m going to go quickly at first.

1. LeBron James

2. Kevin Durant

3. Chris Paul

4. James Harden

5. Russell Westbrook

Still with me? Good. Let’s keep going.

6. Marc Gasol

There are plenty of people who don’t appreciate defense, but even they recognize Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year and that he must be pretty good on that end.

7. Stephen Curry

It’s a wonder he wasn’t an All-Star, but after a spectacular and exciting postseason, he’s definitely a star.

8. Kobe Bryant

Duh.

9. Deron Williams

Williams was on the verge of fading from star territory, but a strong second half to the season keeps him comfortably viewed as a star.

10. Blake Griffin

Dunks often and appears in commercials even more often. Griffin is definitely a star.

11. Mike Conley

No.

Well, on second thought…

***

ESPN’s cameras captured a conversation between Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and Spurs point guard Tony Parker during the Western Conference Finals.

“Mike’s learning from you,” Hollins said. “He’s learning from you.”

After the best regular season of his career and a postseason that nearly matches – pretty remarkable considering how much his competition is upgraded in the playoffs – Conley is showing he might be on his way to becoming Parker’s peer rather pupil.

Conley had 20 points, four assists, three rebounds and five steals in Memphis’ Game 3 loss 104-93 to San Antonio tonight, bringing his playoff averages to 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. But he still ran hot and cold, leaving plenty of questions in his wake.

Is he the player who made five steals in the first 8:04 of the game, or is he the the player who ceded his defense on Parker to Tony Allen?

Is he the player who turned the ball over five times in the first three quarters and was befuddled by Kawhi Leonard guarding him, or is he the the player who had no turnovers in a hotly contested fourth quarter and (a less hotly contested) overtime?

Is he the player who scored on Memphis’ final possession of the third quarter and then added a game-high 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, or is he the the player who shot 2-of-11 before that?

Is he the player Memphis trusted to take the final shot of regulation, or is he the the player who could muster only an off-angle runner while going away from the basket?

Is he a star?

Maybe the numbers overrate Conley. Maybe our perception of him hasn’t caught up to what the numbers tell us. Plenty of players would love their resume to include an up-and-down game against Parker and the Spurs in the conference finals, because few get that far, and many who do only see the downs.

Suddenly, I’m wondering why Conley received no Most Improved Player traction – he finished tied for 15th in the voting – and why I didn’t even consider him for my hypothetical ballot. Conley spent his four seasons playing about league average ball. He took major step forward last year and other one this year.

In this series, he’s showing why he deserves a discussion about whether he’s a star. But he’s also showing why he’s not one yet.

His Grizzlies trailing 3-0, the 25-year-old Conley has likely run out of time to prove his stardom this season. But to re-quote Hollins, “He’s learning.”

Hawks battle back to knot series with Wizards, 2-2

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Paul Millsap shoved Markieff Morris out of the way, grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint and pushed through a shot while Marcin Gortat bumped him to the floor.

The Wizards knocked down Atlanta. They didn’t stop the Hawks.

Millsap and Atlanta showed plenty of fight, topping Washington 111-101 in Game 4 Monday to tie their first-round series 2-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Have the Hawks seized meaningful momentum? History says no.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home then lost the next two on the road have won 81% of the time. The Wizards’ regular-season superiority still speaks loudly, and up to two more home games – starting with Game  5 Wednesday – also help.

Still, credit Atlanta for making the series competitive after digging such a big hole.

Millsap (19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals) soundly outplayed Markieff Morris (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, -10) in the latest round of their personal feud. Millsap also got plenty of help with seven Hawks scoring double digits.

Kent Bazemore (16 points, seven assists and three steals) played meaningful defense and hit a couple big shots. Jose Calderon (10 points, five assists, +29 in 20 minutes) provided a huge spark. Dwight Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) asserted himself for the first time this series. Taurean Prince (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) picked his spots well. Dennis Schroder (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) had his ups and downs. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points) at least offset some of his defensive shortcomings.

This was a total team win.

Washington, on the other hand, got little outside its starting backcourt. Bradley Beal (32 points) thrived, and John Wall (22 points and 10 assists) was still good in an off-by-his-standards performance. But the Wizards crumbled when either sat – especially with both on the bench in the late third/early fourth quarters. Erasing those few minutes with staggering would’ve helped, though it wouldn’t have been the answer tonight.

This has become a far less certain series than Washington hoped, but the Wizards don’t need a wild fix. They just need their top players to play better. Maybe going home will help.

Raptors break out best game of postseason, rout Bucks 118-93 to take 3-2 series lead

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Norman Powell was draining threes, throwing down dunks that would have won the contest All-Star weekend, and he finished with a career playoff-high 25 points on just 11 shots. Plus defensively he caused Khris Middleton trouble.

The Raptors finished with 28 assists, the most in a playoff game since Dwane Casey took over as coach.

Toronto shot 57.7 percent overall, a franchise playoff best.

The Raptors bench played well pitching in 27 points and growing the lead when they were in, part of an overall strong night from the role players in Toronto.

Combine that all with the expected good nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and you get the Raptors best game of the playoffs. It looked like a different team than the one in Milwaukee.

Toronto raced out to an early lead and went on to rout the Bucks 118-93, giving the Raptors a 3-2 series lead.

This was a game where the Bucks tried to force the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan as much as they could, using their length and athleticism. However, Lowry had 10 assists, and DeRozan would get the ball off pindown screens and feel the double coming, move the ball, and another quick pass or two later the role-playing player Raptors were getting good looks and knocking them down. Or throwing it down like this.

Or this.

Toronto just looked more comfortable against the Bucks pressure, having seen it for so many games in a row, than they have all series.

Powell had 25 points for Toronto, Serge Ibaka had 19 and three blocks, Lowry had 16 points and 10 assists, DeRozan had 18 points and six assists, even DeMarre Carroll had 12 points on six shots.

The question for the young Bucks team is how does it bounce back from this kind of loss in the biggest NBA game most of them have ever played? Can they get their defensive edge back?

“We’re going to miss some shots, and we can’t let our offense dictate our defense,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said postgame. “And also the turnovers, again. Right off the bat we had three…

“Our defense kind of got hit there in the first quarter, we knew that they were going to come after us, we had to expect that. And we just couldn’t respond.”

The Bucks had some runs in the second quarter and got the lead to nine at one point, but the Raptors always seemed to be in control.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had another strong game with 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and rookie Malcolm Brogdon pitched in 19 points on 11 shots, but for the most part the Bucks struggled with their offense in this game. As their coach noted — and as often happens to young teams — they let their offensive woes impact the other end of the court.

At home, the Bucks will likely feel more comfortable, and they will fight for their playoff lives.

The question is, can the Raptors be this sharp again and close them out? Or will the yo-yo nature of this team continue?

 

Kevin Durant will play in Game 4 for Warriors vs. Trail Blazers

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In case you were curious how serious Golden State was about closing out Portland in four…

After missing the last two games with a strained calf, both Warriors wins to put them up 3-0 in the series, the Warriors are bringing back Kevin Durant for Game 4.

Steve Kerr is also out tonight for Golden State, Mike Brown will coach the team.

There was buzz that Durant could have gone in Game 3 if needed, but the Warriors felt confident they would win without him and they don’t want this injury to linger. There’s no more holding him back now.

Durant averaged 25.1 points a game, and thanks to the space created by the other stars on the team had his most efficient season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.1. He also pulled down 8.3 rebounds a game, dished 4.9 assists, and had his best defensive season in a long time as well. If not for an injury after the All-Star break that had him missing games, he would have made a lot of voters’ All-NBA team.

He adds to Golden State’s size advantage against Portland. The Warriors would like to close out the series tonight and get additional rest before facing the Clippers or Jazz in the next round.

Serge Ibaka is dunking and Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going to stop him. Twice. (VIDEO)

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The Toronto Raptors had their best half of their first-round series against the Bucks, taking an early lead and, despite a little shooting slump midway through the second they were up nine at the half.

That was all topped off by two emphatic Serge Ibaka dunks. Ones Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t going to stop.

Ibaka dunked around him more than over the Greek Freak, but still.