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.”

Kobe Bryant on Kanye West’s comments: “What the hell are you talking about?”

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Kanye West, the President Trump backing hip-hop star, drew a lot of backlash for his comments on TMZ:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” 

Mentally, maybe in some cases. But more so physically, with guns and whips and attack dogs and a whole lot more weapons that were all on one side. Nobody chooses slavery.

Tuesday, Kobe Bryant surprised a group of about 300 high school students at WE RISE — a 10-day pop-up festival dedicated to sparking a movement for change in the mental health system — in Downtown Los Angeles. One of the students asked him about Kanye’s comments. Kobe is not down.

“I’m sure (I feel) the same way everybody else here in this room feels. What the hell are you talking about? I think that was my reaction as is everybody else’s reaction….

“The thing about our country is that you have the right to say whatever it is that you want to say…that’s the beautiful thing about living in a democracy. I think, for him, he’s one of these entertainers that’s always in a constant state of growth, he’s always challenging … himself, doing a lot of questioning internally himself…so I just take it for what it is and completely disagree.”

If I need to explain to you why Kobe is in the right here, you need to take a basic American history course again.

Good on Kobe for his comments. More importantly, good on Kobe for taking the time to promote mental health awareness.

“It’s easy for us as people to kind of ignore the emotional side of it,  especially when it comes to things that deal with negativity, things that deal with insecurity, things that deal with fear,” Kobe said. “It’s very easy to take the fear and just push it down, try to act like it doesn’t exist. The reason why it starts with imagination is because you first must imagine the life that you want to have. You must first imagine what it is you dream of becoming.”

Kobe did that, and now he’s got an Oscar. Oh, and a few basketball awards, too.

PBT Extra: LeBron, Cavaliers even series but Celtics far from dead

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If you want to make the case that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the driver’s seat of the Eastern Conference Finals after sweeping two games at home, you’re in a good space. It’s a best-of-three and Cleveland has the best player on the planet on their side.

However, I still like the Celtics to hold on and win in seven.

I get into it in this PBT Extra, but the Celtics looked like a team that figured things out in the final three quarters of Game 4 (they just couldn’t make up for a disastrous first quarter), and they still have two games at home.

Either way, this feels like a series going the distance.

Did the Warriors deal Rockets a knockout blow in Western Conference finals?

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 (!) in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Sunday.

Biggest playoff win in Golden State franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss in Houston franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss ever handed to any team as good as the 65-17 Rockets.

“At the end of the day, it’s one win,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “It doesn’t matter if you win by 40 or if you win by one.”

Maybe it matters more than Green is letting on.

Golden State was the 17th team to -win a playoff game by more than 40 points. Of the previous 16, 15 – including the last 14 – won the series:

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The only exception came in my favorite playoff series of all-time, the best-of-three 1956 Western Division semifinals:

  • Game 1: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115
  • Game 2: Minneapolis Lakers 133, St. Louis Hawks 75
  • Game 3: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115

So, teams to win a playoff game by more than 40 are 15-0 in best-of-seven or best-of-five series. Will the Rockets buck the trend?

They can make adjustments. Maybe Houston’s strong regular season – better than any above blown-out team’s – indicates a rare capability to recover from this. Andre Iguodala‘s injury hurts Golden State. Teams sometimes make historic comebacks from blowouts, including against the Warriors.

But that Golden State ran toppled the Rockets so decisively in Game 3 suggests the Warriors are hitting a gear Houston won’t keep up with.

Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell receive, Jayson Tatum one vote shy of, unanimous All-Rookie first-team selections

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The 76ers’ Ben Simmons, Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma were locks for the All-Rookie first team.

The final seemingly up-for-grabs spot? It went to the Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen, and it wasn’t close.

Here’s the full voting for All-Rookie teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, total voting points):

First team

  • Donovan Mitchell, UTA (100-0-200)
  • Ben Simmons, PHI (100-0-200)
  • Jayson Tatum, BOS (99-1-199)
  • Kyle Kuzma, LAL (93-7-193)
  • Lauri Markkanen, CHI (76-21-173)

Second team

Others receiving votes:

The first team matches our choices.

Dennis Smith Jr. and Josh Jackson are the only selections I’d quibble with. Those two were just so destructive with shooting efficiency and defense. To be fair, they were pressed into larger roles than they were ready for on bad teams. But if the goal is picking the rookies who had the best seasons (what I aim to do), Smith and Jackson didn’t cut it.

However, some voters give more credence to long-term potential, and Smith and Jackson both have plenty of that. Other voters are drawn by bigger per-game numbers, which Smith and Jackson produced in their larger roles. So, it’s minimally surprising they made it.

That one first-team vote for Jackson, though? That’s odd – and it was enough to get him on the second team by one voting point over Heat center Bam Adebayo.