For the first seven quarters of its Western Conference semifinals series against Memphis, the Thunder did a commendable job of containing Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley.
In Game 1, OKC held the budding All-Star to 13 points as he shot 5 for 15 shooting from the field and 1 for 5 from 3-point range. Conley also had five rebounds, three assists and two steals, all acceptable numbers given the Thunder posted a 93-91 victory on Sunday afternoon at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In the first half of Game 2, Conley was 3 for 10 from the floor and 0 for 3 from 3-point range, but he started to heat up in the third quarter, scoring six points and going 3 for 6 from the field.
In the fourth quarter, Conley finally ignited for 13 points, shooting 5 for 6 shooting from the floor and 2 for 3 from 3-point range. He also had as many rebounds as the entire OKC roster in the final period (seven) and threw in two assists for good measure.
Conley accumulated 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and helped turn a five-point Grizzlies deficit at the start of the fourth quarter into a 99-93 victory that tied this best-of-7 series at 1.
Afterward, Thunder emergency starter Reggie Jackson blamed himself for Conley's outburst and reiterated that stance after Thursday's practice.
“I take that personal, especially since I almost gave the guy a triple-double. Can't let that happen again,” said Jackson, who is saddled with the unenviable chore of replacing three-time All-Star Russell Westbrook after he was lost to season-ending knee surgery on April 27. “All the great players always take things personally with matchups. Like I've said since Day One, ‘I want to be great,' so I have to do a better job of slowing him down and not letting him by.”
While the Thunder's foul-plagued frontcourt did what it could to contain the formidable inside tandem of 7-foot-1, 265-pound Marc Gasol and 6-foot-9, 260-pound(ish) Zach Randolph, it was the 6-foot-1, 185-pound, left-handed Conley who essentially did as he pleased in the final period of Game 2.
If OKC bigs were slow to hedge on Memphis pick-and-roll plays, Conley capitalized on open paths toward the basket. If Conley's path was blocked, he fed his powerful frontcourt or pulled up for open 3-pointers.
“He got too many paint opportunities initially,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He's a good player. We knew they going into the series and he's played well the last few years. He's a problem that we have to make sure we control. … We have to do a better job on him.”
For this reason, look for 6-foot-7 defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha to take a crack at defending Conley in Game 3, which will tip off at 4 p.m. Saturday at FedExForum in Memphis.
Sefolosha's 7-foot-2 wingspan helped flip momentum in last year's Western Conference Finals against San Antonio when he switched to defend All-Star point guard Tony Parker, and Brooks is hoping to wreak the same havoc this series.
Sefolosha can't defend Conley alone, however, and will require some help from bigger Thunder teammates.
“He's aggressive, and their big guys get so much attention that there's opportunities for him (Conley),” said OKC reserve forward Nick Collison, who fouled out of Game 2 in just 15:22 of playing time.