Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes suspended for failed drug test

When Memphis Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was met by scattered boos midway through the third quarter of a December 11 game against Oklahoma City, among those who rushed to his defense was Mike Conley.

BUSTED --- Grizzlies backup point Nick Calathes played a pivotal role in the team's surge the second half of the season. However, the rookie likely won't be available for the playoffs after the NBA on Friday suspended him for violating the league's anti-drug policy. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

BUSTED — Grizzlies backup point Nick Calathes played a pivotal role in the team’s surge the second half of the season. However, the rookie likely won’t be available for the playoffs after the NBA on Friday suspended him for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

 

“I hated the boos and all that stuff that were geared toward Nick because we all were playing bad,” Conley, the Grizzlies starting point guard, said. “It wasn’t just one person. It was a collective effort. It was like they were looking for someone to blame and that’s not the case. And I’m so happy he got his chance to show people what he can do and to show people those boos weren’t warranted.”

Unfortunately for Calathes, who flourished into an efficient relief man for Conley the second half of the season, he likely won’t be available for the Grizzlies’ latest playoff run.

The NBA on Friday announced that Calathes has been suspended for 20 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

According to various media reports, the drug Calathes had taken is called Tamoxifen. According to a WebMD.com, Tamoxifen is the most commonly used hormone therapy for the treatment of breast cancer. Tamoxifen is often called an “anti-estrogen.”

Attempts to reach Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien Friday night were unsuccessful.

Calathes, 25, has filed a grievance on the ruling and has denied using any performance enhancing drugs, although it is unclear if the former University of Florida standout will be allowed to suit for the No. 7 seed Grizzlies (50-32) when they play the second-seeded Thunder (59-23) in the opening round of the playoffs.

Game 1 of Memphis and OKC’s best-of-7 playoff series is Saturday night at 7:30 CST.

Prior to his suspension, Calathes had witnessed his role increased significantly, in large part because of a January 7 trade in which the Grizzlies sent then-backup point guard Jarryd Bayless to Boston for veteran shooting guard Courtney Lee. Calathes, as result, was installed as Conley’s backup and didn’t disappoint in his new role.

Named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in February, Calathes manufactured the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA during that month and was second among Western Conference rookies in scoring (10.7 ppg) and assists (apg).  Also, he was tied for second in rebounds (3.6 rpg) and was second among NBA rookies in field goal percentage (.495) and steals (1.75 spg).

His considerable progress after the All-Star break was among reasons Conley earlier this week said he was looking for Calathes to have an efficient postseason.

Calathes has filed a grievance on the ruling and has denied using any performance enhancing drugs.

Calathes has filed a grievance on Friday’s ruling by the NBA and has denied using any performance enhancing drugs.

“I think (Calathes’ display) it set us up pretty well, knowing that we’ll be getting a lot of experience from a lot of guys who have been there like Nick Calathes,” Conley told MemphiSport prior to the Grizzlies’ regular season finale against Dallas. “He’s going to play huge minutes for us and we need that kind of experience from him going into the playoffs.”

Conley, the longest-tenured player on Memphis’ roster, also emphasized the importance of the Grizzlies avoiding distractions heading into the postseason.

“It’s very important that we stay locked in and continue doing what we’ve been doing and not worrying about what the media is saying and things from the outside,” Conley, said. “We just need to control what we can control on the court.”

However, the news the organization fielded Friday surrounding one of its key reserves is something that could prove detrimental in this, the Grizzlies’ fourth consecutive playoff appearance.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Durant for league MVP: ‘I don’t care’

Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger wasn’t in mood to talk about Kevin Durant on Thursday, particularly all the hoopla surrounding what has been an MVP season for the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar.

“I don’t care,” said Joerger, when asked if Durant is the frontrunner for league MVP.

NO R-E-S-P-E-C-T --- Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Thursday appeared disinterested in discussing Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant's MVP season. When asked if Durant is the frontrunner for the award, the rookie head coach replied, "I don't care." (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

NO R-E-S-P-E-C-T — Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Thursday appeared disinterested in discussing Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant’s MVP season. When asked if Durant is the frontrunner for the award, the rookie head coach replied, “I don’t care.” (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Whether Joerger’s remarks will serve as bulletin board material, of sorts, for Durant, the NBA’s most-talked-about player, remains a mystery. Regardless, when the Grizzlies (50-32) square off against the Thunder (59-23) Saturday night at 7:30 CST in Game 1 of their best-of-7 opening round playoff series in Chesapeake Arena, the Memphis rookie head coach is fully aware Memphis will be facing a team that’s destined to atone for last year’s second-round upset.

Last year, the Grizzlies advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history after knocking off Oklahoma City four games to one. While Durant was as good as advertised in that series — he averaged 28.8 points and 10.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists through five games — his superb numbers weren’t enough to overpower a deep Grizzlies team, which won four straight after dropping Game 1.

Memphis extended its season, in large part because the Thunder were without All-Star point Russell Westbrook, who missed the remainder of the playoffs after he injured his right knee in Game 2 of OKC’s opening-round playoffs series against the Houston Rockets. Westbrook injured his knee after he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverly while attempting a steal.

When the teams meet Saturday in what figures to be an intense, rugged postseason matchup for a third consecutive year, OKC will have Westbrook back in the fold. That, according to Joerger, will provide the second-seeded Thunder with something they missed in last year’s series — another efficient scorer to complement what has been arguably the best year in Durant’s six professional seasons.

“Oh, they’re much better (with Westbrook in the lineup), a much more potent team,” Joerger said. “They’re switching a lot of stuff defensively and they’re very athletic and their defense has gotten better and better.”

Still, despite all of the Durant-for-MVP discussions in recent months, Joerger elected to assume the hands-off approach when given the chance to assess the season of the league’s most explosive player. Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami’s LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in an April 8 win at Sacramento.

PURE DOMINANCE ---Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami's LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Rueters)

PURE DOMINANCE —Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami’s LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Rueters)

When asked if sense Durant will use the MVP award as motivation, or sorts, heading into this series, Joerger once again said, “I don’t care.”

Even if Durant isn’t using his MVP season as inspiration throughout the postseason, last year’s upset to the Grizzlies will almost certainly fuel the fire of the league’s premiere player.

“He’s not going to use the trophy as motivation,” Grizzlies forward Tayshaun Prince said. “He’s going to use us beating them last year as motivation. That has nothing to do with the MVP season. I don’t think that has anything to do with it at all. It’s more so, ‘These guys got us last year.’”

Earlier this season, Durant publicly pinned most of blame on himself for how last year’s playoff series against Memphis unfolded.

“Individually, I took a lot from that series and looked at what I could have done differently,” Durant told MemphiSport prior to a December 11 game against the Grizzlies. “But it was a learning experience for us all not having our point guard for that series and having to adjust on the fly.”

THUNDER STORM --- Despite averaging 28.8 points during last year's playoff series against Memphis, Durant and Co. were eliminated in five games. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

THUNDER STORM — Despite averaging 28.8 points during last year’s playoff series against Memphis, Durant and Co. were eliminated in five games. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Now with Westbrook back in the lineup, his presence will restrict the seventh-seeded Grizzlies from placing so much emphasis on Durant, who averages an NBA-best 32 points per game.

“The attention is going to be a lot more tougher with Westbrook being in there this time around, so our job is going to be much harder,” said Prince who, along with shooting guard Tony Allen and reserve swingman James Johnson, will likely be assigned to guard Durant. “The success we had on (Durant) last year, we had so many bodies we could throw at him, so many different things we could do, so many different aspects with Westbrook out.”

Which, of course, will make for an entirely different playoff rematch this time around, especially for a Thunder squad in which its featured player will be christened as the NBA’s No. 1 player in any day now, something about which Prince has paid close attention to.

“I don’t think he’s the frontrunner (for league MVP),” Prince said of Durant. “I think he’s already won it. I mean, they have the second best record in the NBA. He played well throughout the whole year. His basketball awareness went up another level as far as rebounding more, finding other guys, dictating the tempo on the floor.

“Every part of his game went up a notch,” Prince continued. I’m not just talking about putting the ball in the basket. I’m talking about other things on the offensive ends. I think that’s what people wanted to see from him this year and he’s done that. I think Kevin has won it pretty handily this year.”

Regardless of who isn’t in the mood to talk about it.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist

Grizzlies rush to LeBron’s defense in his decline to meet with St. Jude patient

Memphis Grizzlies veteran swingman Mike Miller joined the Miami Heat the same year LeBron James bolted Cleveland for South Beach.

FULL PLATE --- Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was heavily criticized after he reportedly declined to meet with St. Children's Research Hospital patient earlier this week. Grizzlies players Zach Randolph and Mike Miller were among those who defended James. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images)

FULL PLATE — Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was heavily criticized after he reportedly declined to meet with a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient earlier this week. Grizzlies players Zach Randolph and Mike Miller were among those who defended James. (Photos by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images)

Among the things Miller deemed mostly intriguing about James is how he often went out of his way to give back to the community.

“He’s about as giving as I’ve ever seen,” Miller said of James.

 

Which, of course, is why Miller was among those who sensed there was more to James’ decision in declining to meet earlier this week with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient Josh Hardy as reported by Memphis’ WREG News Channel 3.

Hardy was a recipient of St. Jude’s Make A Dream Come True. Among his wishes was to attend Wednesday night’s Heat versus Grizzlies game so he could watch James, his favorite player, in action. However, after a request by WREG through a Heat media relations representative to have James meet with Hardy, the two-time reigning league MVP reportedly declined the inquiry.

Still, Hardy was among the 18,000-plus witnesses in attendance and sat in a luxury suite to watch Memphis outlast the two-time defending champs, 107-102, and keep alive its playoff hopes.

Though Hardy didn’t get to meet James, he was given paraphernalia by the Grizzlies organization and got to meet Quincy Pondexter, his favorite player on the team.

Pondexter, the Grizzlies reserve shooting guard who is sidelined with a season-ending tarsal navicular stress fracture in his right foot he suffered in a December 7 game against Golden State, sat with Hardy during the game and gave him a basketball that was signed by his teammates.

Grizzlies All-Star power forward Zach Randolph was among the players who autographed Hardy’s basketball, although he said he wasn’t aware that James had declined to meet with the St. Jude patient until after shootaround Friday morning.

Memphis played host to the Philadelphia 76ers Friday at 7 p.m. CST.

Randolph, who in November was given NBA’s Community Assist Award in recognition of his charitable efforts and contributions in the community, said James’ decision not to meet with Hardy could have been because of a conflict in his schedule. Wednesday’s game against the Grizzlies was the last on back-to-back nights for the Heat, who hosted the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.

Miller played three seasons with James and said he was a fixture in giving back to  the community.

Miller played three seasons with James and said he was a fixture in giving back to the community.

“LeBron does a lot,” Randolph said. He probably was busy. LeBron is a great guy. You know, he does a lot for the community and for the kids. So that’s (Wednesday’s decline) nothing. He’ll probably fly the kid to meet him.”

Miller, who re-signed with the Grizzlies in July after a six-year absence, also rushed to James’ defense, saying the situation likely was a misunderstanding.

“Knowing LeBron as much as I know I him, I doubt the information even got to him,” Miller said. “He takes all of those requests.”

Asked if he believed because the Heat played on consecutive nights was a factor in James having turned down a request to meet with the patient, Miller said, “I think he would have met with him still. I think with that, it had to do with a situation where he probably didn’t get the information.”

While Randolph and Miller wouldn’t say whether they sensed the controversy surrounding James has been blown out of proportion, both agreed the 10-year veteran and four-time league MVP’s track record is such that he is committed to giving back to underprivileged individuals. “He gets those request a lot,” Miller said. Believe me, when it comes to St. Jude and children and giving back, he’s going to do that.”

That James was labeled a “punk” and “thug” by several WREG viewers was unwarranted, Miller said.

“The bottom line is no one knows anybody,” he said. “Until you get to know somebody, it’s difficult to judge them. I reserve judgment on everybody I know.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

LeBron appears ready to pass league MVP crown to OKC superstar Kevin Durant

HEADS UP --- Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night's 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has been the "most consistent player" this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HEADS UP — Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night’s 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has been the “most consistent player” this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Two world championships. Two NBA Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs.

Surely, the previous two seasons couldn’t have been any better for LeBron James, the NBA’s most celebrated player whom many have labeled the best on the planet.

However, when asked before Wednesday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies about this year’s MVP race, James sounded like someone who seemed inclined to deliver a concession speech for the first time in three years.

“I think KD (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) has had one heckuva season and if he’s rewarded with the MVP, that’ll be great,” James said. “I mean, it’ll be awesome for him, for his family, whose done a great thing for him. He’s played MVP-type basketball.”

Still, the 29-year-old James, who’s won the award four times in 10 NBA seasons, seemed reluctant to say whether the league’s premiere individual hardware is Durant’s to lose.

“I don’t really get caught up into what people say,” James said. “At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they’ll go from there.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, it appears all signs point toward Durant being the heavy favorite to possess the league’s MVP award. Through 77 games, Durant undoubtedly has been the NBA’s most efficient player, averaging a league-best 32 points per game. In addition, the seven-year veteran and five-time All-Star is shooting .505 from the field, which is best in the NBA, and shooting .875 from the free throw line, second only to Golden State’s Stephon Curry (.878).

Second only to New York’s Carmelo Anthony in minutes played (38.5), Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone “King James” of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in Tuesday night’s win at Sacramento. While Durant appeared relieved to witness the streak end, James, meanwhile, was complimentary of Durant’s display in recent months.

Asked if he felt Durant is the frontrunner for MVP, James, the NBA’s third-leading scorer said, “I would say he’s playing the most consistent basketball as far as MVP this year. I mean, he’s put up some great numbers.”

James' game-high 37 points Wednesday weren't enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami's leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

James’ game-high 37 points Wednesday weren’t enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami’s leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

 

Indiana’s Paul George, whose Pacers appear to be on a collision course to meet Miami in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, said while the winner of the MVP award is of “no concern” for him, he hinted that James still has a chance to make up ground.

 

 

“It’s up for grab,” George told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “It’s a lot of guys who are doing a great job. (Durant) is having a heckuva year.”

James’ teammate, Heat center Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was rather candid while chiming in on the league MVP race following Miami’s 107-102 loss against the Grizzlies. Bosh, in fact, believes James’ streak of consecutive MVP awards will end in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think so,” said Bosh, when asked if James has a legitimate chance of surpassing Durant in the MVP race. “I think they’ve made up their minds. But you know, no matter what happens, it’s easy for me to say it’s a trophy and you can’t win it every year.”

Although Durant will likely win this year's MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

Although Durant will likely win this year’s MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

What the Heat can accomplish as they prepare to defend back-to-back NBA titles, Bosh said, is use Durant’s likely dethroning of James as motivation, of sorts, once the playoffs commence.

“You can look for anything as motivation for sure,” Bosh said. “When you’re on top, it puts a big X on your back. So it’s not just (motivation) for LeBron, but for everyone.

You know, it’s a unique situation. I don’t know how (winning MVP feels). I never will.”

Regardless of who is named league MVP, James said his primary focus is to help the Heat accomplish the necessary things to ensure the franchise maintain the NBA’s most covenant award for a third consecutive year. In doing so, he said Miami will need a healthy Dwyane Wade back for what figures to be another intense postseason run.

Wade ran sprints on the FedExForum court roughly 90 minutes before Wednesday’s game, but sat out while he continues to recuperate from a strained left hamstring. It was the eighth consecutive game Wade has missed. In all, he has missed 27 outings this year.

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Heat a half game behind Indiana for the top spot in the East.

“It’s very important,” James said of having a healthy Wade in the lineup. “He’s one of Big Three. We’ve won two championships for the most part because we had our Big Three on the floor. When he’s out there, we’re a dynamic team.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizzlies reserve Nick Calathes silencing critics, earning respect from home fans

The Florida Gators will continue their quest for a third national title Thursday night in FedExForum.

No one, it seems, is pleased by that more than Memphis Grizzlies backup point Nick Calathes.

RISING ROOKIE --- Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was booed early and often by the FedExForum crowd weeks into the season. He has since evolved into one of Memphis' most efficient reserves and was rewarded for his efforts recently when he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

RISING ROOKIE — Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was booed early and often by the FedExForum crowd weeks into the season. He has since evolved into one of Memphis’ most efficient reserves and was rewarded for his efforts recently when he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

“I’m happy for the Gators,” Calathes told MemphiSport. “I’m happy for coach (Billy) Donovan. I think they have a chance to really go far. They have a bunch of seniors. They have a deep bench and coach Donovan got them rolling.”

That the top-ranked Gators, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed who will face UCLA, will continue postseason play in the same venue where Calathes play home games as pro is a microcosm of how well things have gone of late for the Memphis rookie.

The NBA announced recently that Calathes, who starred at Florida from 2007-2009, was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in February. For the 25-year-old Calathes, who was presented with his award prior to Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, receiving such an honor in front of a sellout FedExForum crowd was a moment of redemption, or sorts, for an NBA newcomer who wasn’t a fan favorite during the season’s early stages.

That was evident during the Grizzlies’ home game against Oklahoma City December 11. After checking into the game midway through the third quarter of Memphis’ 116-100 loss, Calathes was met by scattered boos from fans.

As if the unpleasant reception wasn’t enough, the loss began a season-long five-game winless streak for the Grizzlies. Calathes, meanwhile, was trying to find his niche on a Memphis team that was hampered by a slew of injuries and out of playoff contention.

“Man, it’s been a long time, it’s been an up and down year for sure,” Calathes said.

Still, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-American, didn’t seem affected by the early-season heckling from the hometown fans. If nothing else, he used the unpleasant welcome as motivation, given the resilience he has exhibited since the season’s halfway point.

After the Grizzlies on January 7 traded then-backup point guard Jarryd Bayless to Boston for veteran Courtney Lee, Calathes became the relief man to Mike Conley.

He didn’t disappoint.

Instead, February turned out to be a coming-out-party, of sorts, for the Casselbury, Florida native who holds Greek citizenship. While producing the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA for that month, Calathes was second among Western Conference rookies in scoring (10.7 ppg) and assists (apg).  Also, he was tied for second in rebounds (3.6 rpg) and was second among NBA rookies in field goal percentage (.495) and steals (1.75 spg).

How to explain the swift progress for a rookie who Grizzlies fans had essentially written off less than one month into the season?

“I think the trade helped me out when they traded Jarryd,” Calathes said. “That gave me an opportunity to play a lot more and I just tried to take full advantage of it and I knew my teammates began to have more confidence in me.”

Conley, the Grizzlies’ longest-tenured player, was among those who felt the harsh reaction Calathes acquired from fans was uncalled for.

“I hated the boos and all that stuff that were geared toward Nick because we all were playing bad,” Conley said. “It wasn’t just one person. It was a collective effort. It was like they were looking for someone to blame and that’s not the case. And I’m so happy he got his chance to show people what he can do and to show people those boos weren’t warranted.”

Two months removed from having been installed as Conley’s backup, Calathes’ surge is among the reasons the Grizzlies are back in playoff contention as they begin a season-long five-game road trip starting Wednesday night at Utah.

Prior to entering the NBA ranks, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, was a McDonald's All-American and starred at the University of Florida from 2007-2009. The top-ranked Gators will continue NCAA Tournament play in FedExForum Thursday night against UCLA. (AP Photo)

Prior to entering the NBA ranks, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, was a McDonald’s All-American and starred at the University of Florida from 2007-2009. The top-ranked Gators will continue NCAA Tournament play in FedExForum Thursday night against UCLA. (AP Photo)

 

Having won 15 of its last 20, Memphis (42-28) is currently seventh in the Western Conference standings with 12 regular-season games remaining.

“He’s done good job of running the team,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said of Calathes. “He took care of the basketball. He still played his game. He’s just been a little more aggressive. He’s great in the pick and roll, a lot better defender than people think. He plays his position and he uses his size, which is good. He’s been great for us.”

Drafted with the 45th picked by Minnesota in the second round in 2009, Calathes — who was traded to Memphis last summer after a brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks — is now a fan favorite in FedExForum. That was evident before Saturday’s game.

“It’s always great to hear that,” Calathes said of the boos. “It obviously gets me going as a player. But fans are going to be fans. All I can do is go out and give my best. We’re all blessed to have an opportunity to play.”

An opportunity that, to his credit, hasn’t gone unnoticed in this, his first year in the NBA.

So much for the scattered boos.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizzlies sound off about point guard Mike Conley’s All-Star snub

Zach Randolph believes Mike Conley’s day will eventually come.

Never mind that his chances were better than ever this year.

SILENCING CRITICS --- The inconsistent play of Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley led to much criticism early in his NBA career. This year, Conley is staging All-Star-caliber numbers in what is shaping up to be his best season as a pro. (Photos by Chris Evans)

SILENCING CRITICS — The inconsistent play of Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley led to an array of criticism early in his NBA career. This year, Conley is staging All-Star-caliber numbers in what is shaping up to be his best season as a pro. (Photos by Chris Evans)

 

“He’s going to get there,” the Memphis Grizzlies power forward said after Wednesday’s shootaround when asked his reactions to Conley being snubbed as an All-Star for the West squad. “You know, a lot of players were snubbed. But Mike is going to get there. He’s getting better.”

The longest-tenured Grizzly, Conley has made considerable strides at the point guard position since he entered the NBA seven seasons ago, particularly in a season in which Memphis has battled an assortment of injuries to several marquee players. Even before he sustained an ankle injury last Friday at Minnesota, Conley played with much poise and resilience in helping Memphis re-emerge as a playoff contender.

Currently, Conley is Memphis’ leading scorer at 18 points and 6.3 assists per game for a Grizzlies team that is 25-18 with him in the lineup. And, although the possibility exists that he could be sidelined at  least through Memphis’ weekend road games at Atlanta and Cleveland, the Grizzlies appear to be a solid shape heading into next week’s All-Star break, largely because the 26-year-old Conley has played arguably the best basketball of his career.

Conley wasn’t available to the media after shootaround in preparation for Memphis’ game Wednesday night at 7 CST against the Dallas Mavericks in FedExForum, although team officials said he was in the facility and receiving treatment for his injured ankle. Having won 11 of their last 13, the Grizzlies are one game back of Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Among Conley’s notable highlights was his 27 point, 10 assists outburst at upstart Sacramento on January 29, an inspiring performance that prompted various media pundits to debate whether he is worthy of making his All-Star debut. However, even during a season in which Conley is producing All-Star-caliber numbers, the former Ohio State star was left off the roster when the reserves were announced last week.

The 63rd All-Star Game is Feb. 16 at New Orleans Arena.

TAKING CHARGE --- Through 43 starts, Conley, the longest-tenured Grizzly, leads the team with 18 points and 6.3 assists per contests as Memphis has re-emerged as a playoff-contender.

TAKING CHARGE — Through 43 starts, Conley, the longest-tenured Grizzly, leads the team with 18 points and 6.3 assists per contests as Memphis has re-emerged as a playoff-contender.

Four other point guards were named All-Star reserves ahead of Conley, including Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul, who has missed the past 16 games with a separated right shoulder he injured in a Jan. 3 game at Dallas. Portland’s Damian Lillard was named one of seven reserves for the West squad (his first All-Star selection), despite being outplayed by Conley in Memphis’ resounding 99-81 win at the Trial Blazers during the Grizzlies’ recent three-game road trip. San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Golden State Stephen Curry were also named to the West roster.

“It happens,” Grizz center Marc Gasol, a 2011 All-Star, said of Conley being left off this year’s All-Star team. “It happens every year that a lot of players who should of made the All-Star team don’t make it. But at the end day, we have bigger goals and I’m sure Mike knows that. And hopefully that’s the NBA’s Finals.”

Roughly one month into the season, the Grizzlies looked nothing like a team that was destined to secure a playoff for a fourth consecutive year, in large part because of the injuries to reserve shooting guard Quincy Pondexter and Gasol coupled with the inconsistent play of their bench.

Credit Conley for Memphis’ resurgence as the All-Star break looms.

A once unproven player who garnered much criticism for his inconsistency and lethargic play in the pick and roll offense in the early stages of his career, Conley has steadfastly silence his critics in recent years, demonstrating among other things that he’s as good as advertised for a lottery player who was selected with the fourth overall pick by Memphis in 2007.

Grizz coach Dave Joerger on Wednesday didn’t shy away from the notion that his starting point was an All-Star snub.

“Mike Conley has been absolutely tremendous for us,” Joerger said. “He would go stretches where he would 44 assists through four games and three turnovers and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I want you to have the ball the whole time.’ The West has a lot of guards, a lot of good guards. He’s valuable and if it’s an All-Star Game where guys are valuable, I think he gets in and I feel he should have been an All-Star.”

At this stage in his career, it’s not a matter of if Conley will make his All-Star debut, but rather a matter of when.

“He’s going to be an All-Star,” Randolph, a two-time All-Star, said. “He has an All-Star mind.

Which, of course, is among the reasons his day will eventually come.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

OKC star Kevin Durant: ‘People may be happy we don’t have Westbrook’

Kevin Durant is only keeping it real.

When asked Tuesday afternoon how concerned he is about the health of point guard Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar was rather transparent and upfront with reporters.

BOUNCING BACK --- Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant said after Tuesday's shootaround in FedExForum that OKC has played efficient basketball in the absence of injured All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and he's glad the team's second-leading scorer will be back for the second half of the season. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BOUNCING BACK — Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant said after Tuesday’s shootaround in FedExForum that OKC has played efficient basketball in the absence of injured All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and that he’s glad the team’s second-leading scorer will be back for the second half of the season. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

“Not concerned at all,” Durant said following the Thunder’s shootaround in preparation for their game against the Memphis Grizzlies in FedExForum. “We’ve got guys that pride in what we’re do, guys that come out here and play hard. We’re not going to make excuses about what we do. We don’t have guys that make excuses. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. In fact, people may be happy we don’t have Westbrook.”

That Westbrook, the Thunder’s second-leading scorer, has been hampered off-and-on by injuries since late last season is nothing to new to Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer who had to steer the Thunder past the opening round of last year’s playoffs without the team’s star point guard. Westbrook has been sidelined since late December after having surgery on his right knee, a procedure that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until sometime after the All-Star break.

OKC has compiled a 5-4 mark since Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, sustained his latest injury on Christmas Day at the New York Knicks, although he managed to produce a triple-double in the game. After the team announced the next day that Westbrook would require surgery on the same knee he hurt in Game 1 of last year’s opening-round playoff game against Houston, Durant was among those who appeared optimistic the Thunder could remain just as competitive in Westbrook’s brief absence.

“It could be a lot worse, you know,” Durant said. “Thank God they said he’ll make a better recovery this time around. A lot could be worse, so we’re just focusing on the positives, knowing he’ll be healthy when he comes back. I’m worried about him getting healthy. Basketball will take care of itself, man.”

Last year, the Thunder entered the playoffs as the top-seeded team in the West and heavy favorites to return to the NBA Finals. However, after Westbrook injured his right knee when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley collided with him while attempting to steal, OKC beat the Rockets in six games before ultimately being eliminated by the Grizzlies in five games in the Western Conference semifinals.

Although he is roughly a month away from his likely return, Westbrook —- who isn’t required to speak with the media — made the trip to Memphis with the Thunder and sat alongside Durant after Tuesday’s shootaround with an ice pack draped over his knee.

What’s so inspiring this year, Durant said, is that the Thunder will have Westbrook back for what figures to be a pivotal stretch the second half of

Durant and the Thunder lost in six games to the Tayshaun Prince (left) and the Grizzlies in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs last year. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

Durant and the Thunder lost in six games to the Tayshaun Prince (left) and the Grizzlies in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs last year. (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

the season. Heading into Tuesday night’s game at Memphis, OKC is currently tied with Portland for the NBA’s third-best record and trails first-place San Antonio by 1 ½ games for the top spot in the West.

In OKC’s previous visit to Memphis, Westbrook, appearing unaffected by a slight tear in his right meniscus he suffered last April, registered a game-high 27 points on 7-of-12 shooting in lifting the Thunder to a decisive 116-100 win against the Grizzlies.

“We’re a different team without Westbrook,” said Durant, who is averaging an NBA-best 29.6 points per game. “We know what we hang our hats on and that’s on the defensive end. We just want to play hard to be honest. You know, we can talk about X’s and O’s or how many shots this guy is taking. But it’s about playing hard. We might win every night, but we’re consistently playing hard. And that’s what it comes down to no matter who is on the court. Whether it’s Jeremy (Lamb), Reggie (Jackson), or Nick (Collison) or Steven (Adams), or Perry (Jones), it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to play hard and that’s what it boils down to. And I think we’ve been doing a good job of that.”

Also on Tuesday, Durant said he will play against the Grizzlies after missing practice the past couple of days while nursing a sore wrist he sustained after a hard fall last Saturday against visiting Milwaukee.

“I’m good,” Durant said. “I just took a little tumble. Everybody’s done that before.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist

Marc Gasol resumes conditioning, return to lineup still uncertain Joerger says

Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said his players are excited to see center Marc Gasol back in the gym.

However, when asked Saturday afternoon if there is a timetable on when Gasol would be cleared to return to action for the injury-plague Grizzlies, Joerger simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know when he’ll play.”

BIG MISSING PIECE --- Although Grizzlies center Marc Gasol has been cleared to participate in non-contact drills, coach Dave Joerger on Saturday said he isn't sure when the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year will return to action. Memphis has lost 13 of 22 games since Gasol's knee injury in late November. (Photo by Chris Evans)

BIG MISSING PIECE — Although Grizzlies center Marc Gasol has been cleared to participate in non-contact drills, coach Dave Joerger on Saturday said he isn’t sure when the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year will return to action. Memphis has lost 13 of 22 games since Gasol’s knee injury in late November. (Photo by Chris Evans)

Memphis, which posted its highest winning percentage and advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year, has struggled immensely since Gasol, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, went down with a sprain MCL he sustained early in the second quarter of a Nov. 22 game against the San Antonio Spurs in FedExForum.

An MRI the next day revealed that Gasol had suffered a Grade 2 sprain to the MCL in his left knee and that he would not require surgery, although the team announced a couple of days after his injury that it was uncertain about his return.

However, after Gasol was cleared recently to participate in light non-contact drills, Joerger said seeing the 7-foot-1 Spaniard slowly working his way back into playing shape has been inspiring for a team he believes can make up much ground in terms of securing a playoff spot for a fourth consecutive year.

Following Friday night’s 104-99 win against the Phoenix Suns, the Grizzlies are currently four games back for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Once Gasol, a six-year veteran and 2011 All-Star, returns, Joerger said his presence will only add more resilience and assertiveness to a Grizzlies team that has earned a reputation as one of the NBA’s best defensive units in recent years.

“It’s different because you play and everyone’s reliant upon playing off of Marc,” Joerger said before Saturday’s workout at  team’s practice facility. “He’s a facilitator and when you don’t have that, you feel as if you’ve got to make more plays on your own.”

Joerger was referring primarily to Grizz big men Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos, both of whom he said have filled in nicely in Gasol’s absence. Koufos, signed by the Grizzlies in the offseason after making 81 of 82 starts for Denver last year, has started 21 games since Gasol went down, averaging 7.7 points and 24-plus minutes. Davis, meanwhile, has made three starts, but is averaging better than 29 minutes while having appeared in 29 games this year.

“Both of these guys have stayed within themselves, with what they do offensively and defensively and rebounding and doing their work in the paint,” Joerger said. “What they’re doing defensively is blocking shots and rebounding well and starting our break and then getting down (the court) quickly and trying to spring Mike Conley free into a pick and roll. It’s been different, because you don’t see that a lot.”

Since Gasol, who was the team’s second-leading scorer at the time of his injury, has been sidelined, Joerger has switched to an assortment of rotations in hopes of atoning for the absence of arguably the league’s best young center. To no avail, however, the Grizzlies have struggled considerably without Gasol, having dropped 13 of 22 outings since his knee injury.

Joerger said Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen is recouping comfortably from a hand injury he sustained last week at Denver and that the nine-year veteran is listed as day-to-day.

Joerger said Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen is recouping comfortably from a hand injury he sustained last week at Denver and that the nine-year veteran is listed as day-to-day.

On Saturday, Gasol — who isn’t required to speak with the media — jogged out onto the practice court, wearing a protective brace around his left knee and took part in his customary conditioning drills while he continues to recuperate from his injury.

Like his players, Joerger appears optimistic that once Gasol is cleared to resume full contact drills, the Grizzlies can make a strong case for vying for a playoff spot.

“He’s been cleared for light contact,” Joerger said. “Part of it is continuing to heal his knee. He’s working hard to get back and certainly his teammates love to have him in the gym. He brings such tremendous energy and guys will be excited to get him back. But I don’t know when it’ll be.”

Also on Saturday, Joerger said isn’t sure when starting shooting guard Tony Allen will return after the nine-year veteran sustained ligament damage to his left (non-shooting) hand during a Jan. 3 loss at Denver, although team officials have listed Allen as “day-to-day.”

Prior to his injury, Allen was the Grizzlies’ third-leading scorer, averaging 10.2 points.

“He continues to get rehab on his hand,” Joerger said. “And as I know more as concrete or a timetable, whether it’s six days or six weeks, I’ll let everybody know, because everybody wants to know because it’s an obtuse kind of injury. The swelling is down which is good. You just go from there where his comfort level is.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist

VIDEO: Is Memphis Grizzlies Guard Mike Conley An All-Star?

Friday night Grizzlies guard Mike Conley had yet another great game scoring a career high 31 points against the Phoenix Suns in a Grizzlies 104-99 victory at FedExForum. After the game Conley and his teammates were asked if he should be considered a NBA All-Star.

NBA veteran Courtney Lee aiming to make the most of his ‘fresh start’ for Grizzlies

FRESH START --- Veteran swingman Courtney Lee, who was acquired by the Grizzlies in a three-team trade Jan. 7, said he welcomes the challenge of helping Memphis compete for a playoff spot the second half of the season. Lee scored 12 points in 25-plus minutes in his Grizz debut Tuesday against San Antonio. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

FRESH START — Veteran swingman Courtney Lee, who was acquired by the Grizzlies in a three-team trade Jan. 7, said he welcomes the challenge of helping Memphis compete for a playoff spot the second half of the season. Lee scored 12 points in 25-plus minutes in his Grizz debut Tuesday against San Antonio. (Photos by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Courtney Lee has a few New Year’s resolutions.

Nothing too complicated, however.

“It’s 2014, New Year, new start,” Lee, the newly-acquired Memphis Grizzlies swingman, said before Friday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns. “I’m on a different team, have different goals, so this is a fresh start.”

For Lee, a six-year veteran, his “fresh start” with the Grizzlies drew rave reviews from coach Dave Joerger and his staff following Tuesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Traded by Boston Jan. 7 in a three-team deal to the Grizzlies in exchange for combo guard Jerryd Bayless approximately 48 hours prior to Memphis’ game against the Spurs, Lee wasted little time making his presence felt, particularly during the Grizzlies’ second-half surge that enabled them to erase a 16-point deficit and force overtime.

Lee scored nine of his 12 points after intermission, including six points during the pivotal fourth. Among his clutch baskets was a fastbreak layup off an assist from Mike Conley with 1:35 left in the fourth that jumpstarted a key 9-0 spurt and eventually allowed in the Grizzlies to rally and to tie the contest in the waning moments.

By game’s end, Lee had registered 5-of-10 shots while playing 25-plus minutes, the third-most among Memphis’ reserves. As the former Western Kentucky star tells it, making the transition to a Grizzlies team that boasts lofty playoff aspirations is ideal at this stage in his NBA career. Among the reasons is that the 28-year-old Lee has yet to establish any sort of longevity with the four previous teams (Orlando, New Jersey, Houston, and Boston) for which he has played. His longest tenure, in fact, transpired in Houston, where he spent 23 months and nine days between August 2010 and July 2012.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m one of the missing pieces because Marc’s (Grizzlies center Gasol) been hurt,” said Lee, accessing his move from Boston to Memphis. “He’s a huge piece for the team. I just want to add on to anything the team’s doing, especially when they get Marc back. Coming from Boston was different because it was a rebuilding stage when I was over there and coming to a team that wants to win right now and win at a high level. So I want to be on a team that wants to win and make the playoffs and make noise in the playoffs. That’s the only difference.”

Upon his arrival to Memphis, the Indianapolis native received a warm welcome from his new — but familar — teammates, many of whom not only recall

Lee, now with his fifth NBA team, has appeared in 25 career postseason games during his six-year stint in the league.

Lee, now with his fifth NBA team, has appeared in 25 career postseason games during his six-year stint in the league.

his career-night two years ago when he scored 30 points against the Grizzlies while with the Nets, but sense the 6-foot-5 guard brings to the team an attribute it hasn’t enjoyed since the organization parted ways with Rudy Gay last January — someone who has the luxury of creating his own shot and provide Memphis with some much-needed instant offense in the backcourt.

“It always different when you see one of your teammates get traded away,” Conley said. “Obviously, you want to see them succeed wherever they go. But getting Courtney Lee was big for us. He’s a very good fit. He plays defense. He scores. Whatever the team needs him to do. He did a little bit of everything the last game, so hopefully we’ll get more of the same from him here on out. I think he adds something to our team that we haven’t had in a long time. He’s a guy who obviously can create his own shot, but he also isn’t afraid to take and make big shots. He’s a veteran. He knows the ins and outs of the game. Hopefully, when we get back on track and make that playoff push, we’ll see more.”

Lee, who has appeared in 25 career postseason games, welcomes the challenge of aiding a Grizzlies team that is currently four games back for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

That, he said, is just one of his few New Year’s resolutions.

“Everybody has new resolutions every year,” said Lee, who scored eight points on 2-of-6 shooting in 28-plus minutes in Friday night’s 104-99 win against the Suns in FedExForum. “I just want to help this team win and make the playoffs.”

Nothing too complicated, however.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.