Grizzlies’ Mike Conley has his best season after record-setting deal

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley found the perfect way to answer all the questions about the Memphis Grizzlies giving an injury-prone point guard with no All-Star appearances a five-year, $153 million contract last summer.

He had the best season of his career.

“I knew people would be waiting for me to fail, and saying their opinion was right,” Conley said. “I knew that was out there, but at the same time, I was only worried about the good that has come out of it.”

The 6-foot-1 point guard usually goes unmentioned when the discussion turns to the NBA’s best players. With Conley’s history of injuries ranging from ankles to Achilles and even facial injuries in the 2015 playoffs , the contract just seemed way too much to pay to anyone outside of Memphis even if the guard has been a key piece of the longest playoff run in Grizzlies’ history.

Conley has provided Memphis fans – and ownership – quite a return on the team’s investment:

– Ten of his 15 career 30-point games have come this season.

– Scored a career-high 38 points against Phoenix in January.

– Averaging 20.6 pts a game. That’s seven points higher than his career average, while also averaging a career-best shooting percentage outside the arc (40.7 percent) and at the free throw line (86.1 percent).

– Became the career scoring leader for the Grizzlies, and also has made more 3-pointers than anyone else in franchise history.

– Joined LeBron James, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook as the only players with at least 10,000 career points, 4,000 career assists and 1,000 career steals since entering the NBA in 2007-08.

“He’s been playing phenomenal,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. “He’s one of the top five point guards in the league. He’s definitely an All-NBA caliber kind of guy. He’s been showing that.”

Coaches and other players around the league often talk about how Conley is underappreciated for what he brings to the Grizzlies. After a 110-97 win over Indiana a couple of weeks ago, Pacers forward Paul George talked about Conley’s 36 points – including seven 3s, six assists, four steals and only one turnover.

“We allowed him to kind of orchestrate the whole offense, and he got comfortable early,” George said. “He’s a flame thrower. Once he gets hot, it’s over.”

It’s why Conley has nicknames from Captain Clutch to the Conductor – the last from a video the Grizzlies put together featuring minority owner Justin Timberlake and directed by Craig Brewer to ensure Conley re-signed with Memphis last summer.

Then first-year coach David Fizdale asked even more of Conley starting with having the guard coach a quarter in a preseason game. The switch in roles wasn’t a stunt or a lark. Fizdale wanted Conley to understand the role the coach wanted from him as a leader along with running the team.

“He’s really tried to embrace that for me and take his aggressiveness up another level,” Fizdale said. “He is truly the glue to this whole thing connecting everyone, and he does it without an ego.”

Injuries continue to be an issue for the 175-pound guard, yet he keeps coming back faster than anyone expects. Conley was back in three weeks after breaking vertebrae in his lower back in late-November , an injury expected to keep him out six weeks. He needed 13 stitches over his right eye after butting heads with Kawhi Leonard on April 4, which kept him out of one game only because he couldn’t see out of the swollen eye.

Conley said his thought process returning from injury is simple. If he can play, he’ll play. And he missed only the one game after cutting his eye to send a message of the urgency the Grizzlies need going into the postseason. Memphis has earned the No. 7 seed and will play the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round.

Conley feels like he is ready.

The 29-year-old guard said, “I’m better for having had the pressure of the contract and having the opportunity and the responsibility to lead this team.”

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.