MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Conley swished a 3-pointer from the wing to further Minnesota's fourth-quarter surge, prompting Memphis to call a timeout and the home fans to howl with approval.
Turning to the Target Center crowd with one of those fierce “go ahead, try to stop me” expressions, Conley pounded his chest twice for emphasis before retreating to the bench and his adoring teammates.
The demonstrative reaction appeared a bit out of character for the 17-year veteran point guard, a four-time winner of the NBA 's Sportsmanship Award who's revered throughout the league for his calm, classy and cool demeanor he carries with his ample contributions on the court.
“I’ve always been competitive, but I could see it being a little bit more urgent for me at this stage of my career,” Conley said after the Timberwolves beat his former team 118-103 on Thursday night. “Like, every game matters more. I never know when it’s going to be the last one, like that kind of feeling. That’s how I treat it. I don’t know how long I’m going to play, so every time I go out I’ve got to play as hard as I can, play as good as I can, give everything I’ve got, and hopefully it’s enough to win.”
Conley had eight straight points on an 11-0 run by the Wolves over 2:43 that gave them the lead for good around the 10-minute mark. He had 10 assists without a turnover, raising his assist-to-turnover ratio to 6.34. That ranks second in the NBA behind Tyus Jones among players with a qualifying amount of assists.
“They called him ‘Captain Clutch’ when he was in Memphis for a reason,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said.
The three-team trade that president of basketball operations Tim Connelly orchestrated just before the deadline last season to acquire Conley from Utah and jettison previous point guard D'Angelo Russell has worked out as well as the Western Conference-leading Wolves could have hoped. His maturity has been a major boost for a team that lacked it in key moments last season.
Now that Conley has had a full year, including training camp, to mesh with Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaden McDaniels, Naz Reid and the rest of the roster, the work-in-progress offense has performed closer to its potential. Conley's previous chemistry with Rudy Gobert over their time together with the Jazz has been an invaluable asset for the Wolves to unlock the big man's production and skills after an awkward and tense debut.
All the attention that Edwards draws from opponents wherever he is on the court and the paint-packing that defenses employ against supersized lineups — with four of Minnesota's top six players measuring 6-foot-9 and up — has gifted Conley a steady stream of wide-open shots from behind the arc. His stroke is in prime form, too, with a career-best 45.2% rate from 3-point range that ranks ninth in the league among players with a qualifying amount of makes.
“When you’re getting older, man, the 3-point line, if you can shoot from behind it, it makes you a little bit quicker, I think," Conley said. "They have to close out harder. They have to go over every screen. So I don’t have to play at 100% all the time. I don’t have to move as fast as I can to get by people. I can kind of coast and play at my own speed.”
Refusing the option to rest in the second half of back-to-back sets of games, Conley has started 40 of 41 contests. He's on pace for his most appearances since he played in 80 games in his age-25 season.
“It’s invaluable the things that he does for our team," Gobert said. "We don’t really look at age. It’s more about the mindset. Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. And he’s doing it."
Conley has no bigger fan than Edwards, who revealed to reporters on Thursday night after the game that he used to thrive as an 8-year-old playing the NBA 2K video game using Conley and Zach Randolph with the Grizzlies.
“I tell him all the time, ‘Hey, I’m glad you came here. We’ll win us a championship before you get out of here,’” Edwards said.
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