SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Harrison Barnes of the Kings missed a free throw with the Timberwolves ahead 114-106 and 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining Monday at Golden 1 Center.
After clanging off the rim, the ball didn't land in the hands of the initial rebounders under the basket. Instead, it bounced outside the lane.
There were a number of times this season, and even in last season's playoff series against Memphis, when the Wolves would have surrendered an offensive rebound in this scenario, and almost inevitably an opponent would hit a backbreaking three-pointer off that miss.
On Monday, Mike Conley came to the rescue. Conley got in front of Barnes, and got in position to get the rebound. Possession over. Wolves ball. They would go on to win 119-115.
The play typified what Conley has brought the Wolves since coming over in the three-team trade that sent D'Angelo Russell to the Lakers. He is another veteran presence, a player who tends to make the right, fundamentally sound play on a team that doesn't always do that.
"He's the perfect piece, in my estimation," coach Chris Finch said recently. "He really is. He can make all the big plays, he can run the offense, he can get the ball to the guys where and when they need."
Even though Conley's contributions are rarely flashy, they have been important. Take, for instance, what Finch said about the Wolves' two-big lineup and the defense after they played Golden State. Finch was asked what the Wolves learned defensively about deploying a lineup that included Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
"Some of the lineups we were playing with earlier in the season, we weren't able to get to the matchups we wanted because sometimes we had guys we couldn't always put on the ball," Finch said. "Now we have a multitude of guys we can put on the ball. When you can do that you can now move guys around. Sometimes you have to hide players, but we don't really have that anymore."
Finch didn't mention any names, but it's easy to deduce he was speaking about Conley replacing Russell on that end of the floor. Conley's defensive tenacity has been noticeable, as he chases guards like De'Aaron Fox who are a decade younger than he is. It may have taken awhile, but the Wolves are starting to see the effect Conley has had on and off the court.
Guard Anthony Edwards has said he loves Conley, while Naz Reid said even though Conley hasn't been with the Wolves long, he has a commanding voice.
"Tremendous," Reid said of Conley's leadership. "He doesn't talk much, but when he talks everybody stands, because when he talks, that means it matters. When he talks, it's like all right, we're locked."
After one of his first games against the Wizards, a game in which the Wolves lost a large lead, Conley mentioned how he noticed the Wolves had bad habits they needed to clean up, such as shot selection and taking care of the ball when games started to go sideways. What has he thought of the team's play since then?
"We're still fouling a little bit too much," Conley said. "It slows the game down, which you don't want to do late in the game."
But he had plenty of good things to say about how far they have come on offense.
"We're executing," Conley said. "It helps me a lot knowing I have a better feel of the offense, better feel of timing, the areas on the floor people are effective late in the game and also the areas on the floor where people aren't effective late in games, so I can stay away from certain actions late. It limits our turnovers, it limits our areas and allows us to get better shots and chances to be efficient."
When asked how much smarter his team was in recent weeks, Finch said, "significantly." It's no coincidence that has come while Conley has been the team's starting point guard. Conley said he sensed a "heightened awareness" when he joined the Wolves, that the whole organization was devoted to winning now. It's when he knew he could be a good fit.
"It felt like everyone was locked in," Conley said. "It's the reason why I'm still playing. I want to play until I'm 40 if I can be a part of these situations where we can compete at the highest level against the best competition in the world and do it with some guys like this."