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.”

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PBT Extra: Pressure falls on James Harden, Rockets’ bench with Chris Paul out

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Chris Paul is out for Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals with a strained hamstring, and that almost certainly will sideline him for Game 7 as well.

That changes the feel of this series.

The Rockets still just have to win one of the next two games to advance to the NBA Finals, and one of those is at home. However, without CP3 a couple of things need to happen. James Harden needs to find his shooting stroke. Gerald Green and the Rockets’ bench needs to step up. And Houston has to keep defending the way they have the last two games.

It’s not going to be easy (especially on the road in Game 6), but the Rockets still have a real opportunity to advance to the NBA Finals.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.