One-eyed Charlie, as Tony Allen deemed his puffy-faced, red-eyed point guard on this momentum-swinging Tuesday night at Oracle Arena.
Memphis’ Masked Man, perhaps, considering he did don protective wear to cover his fractured face and he was the Memphis Grizzlies’ hoops hero in their 97-90 Western Conference Semifinals Game 2 win over the Golden State Warriors.
But know this about the perpetually-underrated 27-year-old whose dramatic return helped even this series with Game 3 coming in Memphis on Saturday: He’ll answer that call, no matter how it comes.
Just 10 days after the inadvertent elbow of Portland’s C.J. McCollum broke multiple bones in his face during Game 3 of the Grizzlies’ first-round series, and just eight days after surgery was required to repair all the damage, Conley played but played like the All-Star caliber talent he has always been. He had 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting, his first four shots at the outset sparking a strong start and his dagger three-pointer from the right wing with 2:13 left in regulation stretching the lead to 10 points at the perfect time. The Warriors and their wild fans were shell-shocked because, well, this just doesn’t happen here.
Golden State, which looked so dominant in its Game 1 win and which hadn’t lost a game in this vaunted building since Jan. 28, fell for the first time in the last 22 tries. And if this is the new way of Memphis’ world, this style that looked so reminiscent of their 41-14 start to the regular season, then the Warriors are surely at risk at falling even farther from here.
Conley being back, and being back in this kind of form, is that big of a deal.
But before he paired up with Allen in the backcourt to put newly-named MVP Stephen Curry and his Splash Brothers running mate, Klay Thompson, in a shooting strait jacket (13-for-34 from the field overall, 3-for-17 from three-point range), he had to get permission to play with this injury that was causing so much pain. And true to his quiet-but-fiery form, Conley pushed hard for the right to have this gutsy performance.
“It was really tight,” he told USA TODAY Sports about the timing of the medical clearance in relation to the game. “Really yesterday (the medical team) kind of said I had the green light to play, but they still were like iffy. But I kind of spoke ahead and took my turn (telling the media on Monday that he expected to play), but today was really the barometer. Waking up after having a hard practice, and knowing that, ‘OK, my body feels good enough to go. I’ll do what I can, and I may as well try it.'”
The concern was all around him, though, and Conley didn’t make the final decision to play until approximately an hour before tip-off. Before then, there was convincing to do that went beyond the medical professionals and their patient.
“Monday was tough, because I’m getting all these people telling me they want me to play,” Conley said at the postgame podium. “My parents are like, no, you need to sit, make sure you’re healthy. And I’ve got all these people pulling me left and right and I don’t know what to do. So I’m just going to sacrifice and do what I’ve got to do for the team regardless if I score 20 (points) or had zero. Tonight I think my presence is being out there with the guys has just helped everybody mentally knowing that I’m going to push through and fight for them, so they pick me up as well.”
That’s the powerful part about what Conley has done here. Just as Chris Paul’s willingness to play with a burning hamstring in Game 7 against the Spurs on Saturday seemed to lift the spirits of his Clippers teammates, Conley has changed the tone of a series that had seemed destined to be one-sided.
Allen, the resident “Grindfather” who is credited with creating the Grit & Grind concept that has come to define this bunch of bruisers, didn’t even wait until the game was over to share his appreciation.
As Conley sat on the bench in the first half during a break, his mask off at the moment and towel around his neck, Allen – who was wearing TNT’s microphone for the network’s “Inside Trax” segment – said, “Straight up, I’m proud of you boy. One-eyed Charlie.”
Conley gave a slight laugh right then, but the more permanent Grizzlies smiles would come later.
“That’s my brother man,” Allen said of Conley. “I’ve been here five years, and every time I come in the locker room I’m teasing him about his playlist, just things he needs to be doing as a point guard. He fights through a lot of injuries. I know he’s a warrior, so the all-heart part is there. And the way he grit and grinds, him fighting through those injuries and coming out there and executing the team and holding everybody accountable, putting guys in their place. And then his defense as well.
“I just was proud of him, the rough road he’s been through. He’s been fighting injuries all year, so for him to just come out here today and be effective and just play out of his mind is huge. I just told him I was proud of him.”
Memphis assistant coach Elston Turner, who has been with the staff the last two seasons, spoke for the rest of the room.
“He has a big heart, man,” he told USA TODAY Sports about Conley. “He’s a competitor, no doubt. In my opinion, he is the most underrated guard in this whole league. We ask him to quarterback our ball club, we ask him to defend. He’s unselfish. Man, I don’t know what to say. He’s just a big-time competitor. The guy, when he first came out of the surgery, it looked like he was done for the rest of the season.”
And now, suddenly, it’s the Warriors who have to worry about whether their end might come more quickly than expected. Conley, who has long been considered one of the best two-way point guards in the game but who has never made an All-Star team, is back in the biggest of ways.
“He probably should have been an All-Star this year,” Allen said. “But the West is so packed. I’m pretty sure he pays attention to that stuff, but right now he’s focused on something way bigger and way better than the hoops hype. He’s focused on trying to get a ring. They can keep underrating him, but he’s going to keep going out there and proving people wrong.”