OAKLAND, Calif. -- The best hope the Memphis Grizzlies have to extend this playoff series against the top-seeded Golden State Warriors rests in the status of the masked man who walked onto the court Sunday 90 minutes before Game 1 and pushed through a rigorous workout.
Through blurred vision, a bloodshot left eye and the sweat-induced fog building inside his protective mask, Grizzlies guard Mike Conley stepped around screens and knocked down jumper after jumper.
Moments later, Conley was in the middle of a series of wind sprints near midcourt when Warriors star Stephen Curry noticed the workout and figured Memphis just might be getting its catalyst back.
But then, Conley left the court and reality started to set in.
It was far too soon to expect a miraculous return. Less than a week removed from facial surgery to repair fractures that required the insertion of two plates around his left eye, Conley's intentions were spectacular, but his level of conditioning and health just weren't ready to cooperate.
"I'm no doctor," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said as he described his meeting with Conley just before he was officially ruled out of Sunday's 101-86 loss. "He wasn't comfortable playing, and I wasn't comfortable saying, ‘You should play. I know your head is throbbing like the top of a thermometer that gets too hot.' But I think it was the right decision for him."
The truth is Conley wasn't even close to being the game-time decision Joerger suggested before his point guard took the court for that pregame workout. The eight-year veteran is still adjusting to post-surgery medication, has lost weight as he tries to regain his appetite and was just at the beginning stage of his process to get back on the court in hopes of eventually helping his team in this daunting series.
With or without Conley, the Grizzlies were destined for trouble in at least the first two games at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have won 21 straight and lost just twice all season. Golden State holding serve is expected. Memphis holding out Conley again Tuesday in Game 2 seems the smart thing to do.
For the Grizzlies, this series doesn't really begin until it swings back to Memphis for Game 3 on Saturday. Giving him another full week of rest, recovery and rejuvenation may be the only legitimate shot Memphis has to delay -- or any dream to deny -- Golden State's path to the conference finals next round.
Conley admitted he was conflicted Sunday. He sat on the bench in a suit and watched the Grizzlies play with little direction on the way to shooting just 38 percent from the field and committing 10 of their 16 turnovers in the second half. That Golden State led comfortably for much of the game, and by as many as 20 in the third quarter, wasn't necessarily the result of Curry or Klay Thompson splashing in 3-pointers.
Instead, it was because Memphis was unable to initiate even a threat of execution for large stretches. Grit and grind desperately lacked guidance. There's no shame in the fact that fill-in starter Nick Calathes and reserve Beno Udrih couldn't stay in front of Curry much of the game.
Elite point guards can't do it either. But it was at the offensive end where Memphis' problems persisted with self-inflicted issues like driving into the corner and then picking up the dribble to welcome a trap instead of confidently initiating offensive sets. Several turnovers were the result of poorly thrown, telegraphed passes in to Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph that were easily deflected or completely picked off. There were stages in the game when Joerger ineffectively gambled by playing without a point guard at all.
The intent was to mix defensive coverage and make matters difficult on Curry and Thompson.
"I think I'm getting there. It's very tough at this point in the year. The playoffs are where, regardless of what your injury is, you find a way. If they tell you four weeks, you (want) to be back in a week. That's how guys look at it. But I've got to be smart." Mike Conley
The result only led to more confusion and frustrated huddles for the Grizzlies.
"We've got to do a better job of communicating what we're going to do offensively, especially because we don't practice that way," Gasol said. "We don't practice without a [point guard]. We don't. That's plain and simple. So we've got to do a better job of communicating and know what we want to do if that situation happens in the game. First of all, we've got to know what's going on out there."
The Grizzlies have no margin for error against a Golden State team that led the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season. The Warriors specialize in turning your mistake into their next highlight. They barter in exchanging your missed opportunity into debilitating transition dunks and 3-pointers.
To a man, Grizzlies players spoke in the locker room about the need to stay together -- mainly because the Warriors are so lethal and effective at ripping a team's collective confidence apart.
"We'll go one or two possessions without scoring, or even when we made a play, they'd come back down and hit a couple 3s," said Grizzlies shooting guard Courtney Lee, who handled makeshift duty at the point. "They'll take our two points and then score six. That's how the numbers keep doubling."
Lee plans to spend Monday's practice trying to get more comfortable when he's asked to run the offense in preparation for Game 2. But this is a bad series for an apprenticeship at the point, especially when the master at the position on the other team is on the verge of officially being handed the league's MVP trophy in the next day or two.
All of this is playing out as Conley contemplates his return. It's a struggle to balance the risk of returning too soon and possibly enduring a setback on one hand against the potential reward of restoring some semblance of direction and order to a team that urgently needs it against the league's best team.
"Mentally, I've got to be ready to go," Conley said. "I think I'm getting there. It's very tough at this point in the year. The playoffs are where, regardless of what your injury is, you find a way. If they tell you four weeks, you [want] to be back in a week. That's how guys look at it. But I've got to be smart. I've got the best doctors around me [and] my family supports me. So I'm just going to make the right decision."
Memphis sorely misses that decision-making ability on the court. The team got away with it the last two games of the 4-1 series win against Portland, mainly because Memphis essentially secured a 3-0 lead before Conley was inadvertently elbowed late in a Game 3 victory.
Survival without Conley is out of the question now. Memphis probably needs a prayer answered to win this season. The Grizzlies will definitely need their best point guard for any hope to be competitive in it.
"It's no secret he makes their team better," Curry said of Conley. "It'll provide definitely a punch for them. If we continue to do what we do, what we did [Sunday] on our defensive end, I think we'll be fine regardless of who suits up for them and have that confidence whenever he does come back."
All things considered, the Grizzlies didn't just miss Conley in Game 1.
Without him this time, they practically ceased to exist.