At the FedEx Forum on Tuesday evening, the media members and few fans lucky enough to be in the arena early got to see Mike Conley on the court testing his bum ankle. The sight of Conley in Memphis Grizzlies warmups instead of the suit he has donned for the last week and a half got the natives all warm and fuzzy inside. Conley wasn’t able to give it a go against the Washington Wizards on this night, but his much-maligned understudy, Nick Calathes, had his best game in relief of Conley, and further quieted the few remaining doubters of his ability to be a quality NBA backup.
The Grizzlies have been ravaged by injuries this season; they have only played 13 games this season with their intended starting lineup of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. And that doesn’t include the season-ending injury to projected sixth-man Quincy Pondexter. Even with all of their injuries, the Grizzlies have a different player assert themselves as the hero on a nightly basis. On this night, it was Calathes with a big night to help Memphis secure a 92-89 win over Washington.
Memphis had to overcome a 37-point effort from Bradley Beal to beat the Wizards, and they were able to do so with Calathes scoring 18 points, grabbing seven boards, dishing out six assists and getting two steals while only committing two turnovers. Calathes also played excellent defense on All-Star point guard John Wall, holding Wall to 2-of-10 from the field and only five points. Frankly, the Grizzlies would not have won this game without Calathes, and they wouldn’t have won with most backup point guards in the NBA.
Calathes was booed only three weeks ago by the hometown crowd after the team had traded away Jerryd Bayless, forcing Calathes to play more often. He struggled at first, and was in a particularly bad funk on the evening he was booed, but with increased playing time, and a longer leash he has proven his worth to the Grizzlies.
Even though Calathes has been playing professionally in Europe for the past four seasons, he is still a rookie and adjusting to the NBA is difficult for most rookies no matter if they are coming from college or overseas. The league is much faster, there isn’t as much spacing, the players are bigger and more athletic, and if you are a rookie who only gets spot minutes, it makes it hard to get acclimated to the style of play. Also, when you have a player like Conley on the bench, you can get pulled from the game very quickly if you make mistakes, but with Conley out, Calathes is afforded the occasional slip-up without being benched immediately.
The Grizzlies are 3-3 with Conley on the bench, and in those six games Calathes has averaged 15.2 points per game, 4.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.33 steals, while also shooting 53.5 percent from the field. Even though the Grizzlies have not enjoyed Conley, Allen and Gasol missing so much time this season, it has allowed them to play guys like Calathes, Ed Davis and Jon Leuer more minutes, and see what they can do when they get playing time.
If the Grizzlies can get healthy at some point soon, they will be tough to beat. Since they have had to go deep down the bench for minutes, they will have a 13-man roster that has 12 players who have played big minutes at one point during the season — only rookie Jamaal Franklin hasn’t seen substantial action. The only problem is the Grizzlies still aren’t healthy, and when Allen and Conley finally come back, they will need some time to get their cohesion back, and figure out how to balance 12 players at once. But I’m guessing that is a problem that Memphis and head coach Dave Joerger don’t mind dealing with.