Mike Conley’s message to Minnesota teammates put to the test: ‘We can’t be complacent’

MINNEAPOLIS — It was the moment Mike Conley had been waiting for, to assert himself to his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates, to let them know that small goals shouldn’t be the ceiling, to dream bigger.

Let them know that urgency should be the theme.

A training camp dinner was the occasion. The franchise that had only been eliminated from the first round once in its three decades of existence would be challenged by its most experienced player, the point guard who had only reached the conference finals once in 11 playoff series.

“I was like, ‘Man, we need to change our mindset,’” Conley recalled to Yahoo Sports earlier this week in Minnesota. “We’re not here to get a playoff berth or a playoff win. You need to start thinking about championship mentality and what that means. Every day, wanting to be better and achieve ultimate goals at the end of the year.

The team had given the eventual champion Denver Nuggets their, admittedly toughest, playoff run the year before, a competitive five-game first-round series. But the West was stacked, it had always been that way, even when Conley was in Memphis and then Utah.

Yet when Conley looked around the room at the table that night, he saw no reason for this team to take a step back, even compared to teams with championship pedigree or Temple players of fame.

“The city may be excited about a playoff or playoff win, but that’s not what we’re here for. We need to have a broader vision. From that day forward, from training camp, to the players and coaches, we all asked ourselves, “How can we have a championship culture so that we can hope to one day compete in it?” »

One of the pricked ears that night belonged to Naz Reid, the backup scorer heading toward a Sixth Man of the Year campaign.

“He’s been in some situations,” Reid said. “He went through situations where he could provide information and some sort of lead, and prepare us for the experience before we went through it.”

Mike Conley’s veteran presence has been felt in Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

What followed was a three-way race to the top of the West, with Minnesota finishing a game behind Denver and Oklahoma City. Any lingering disappointment dissipated when the Timberwolves swept the Phoenix Suns, one of those teams with championship expectations, in the first round. Conley’s words came to life.

It wasn’t hard for Conley to get involved; he had always been the trusted veteran, even if he wasn’t a veteran. But during his first months in Minneapolis, he was unsure of his personal future. The Timberwolves traded him at last year’s deadline and he wasn’t sure if they would fully guarantee his $24.3 million salary or if he would end up on the trading block again.

“It was one of those situations, I kind of felt vulnerable at that moment,” Conley said. “I don’t want to come in and just be this loud voice. These guys would immediately blame me. I’m just the new guy. I will find out the situation. I will speak if I need to.

Nonetheless, Conley won the NBA Teammate of the Year award this season, his second such honor. The Timberwolves guaranteed his contract in June and he has since signed a two-year extension that will take him through 2025-26.

“The only thing I know is to love hard in every situation I find myself in,” Conley said. “After the summer passed and after training with the guys, I decided that I should address the team in a different way than they have heard in recent years.”

Urgency was the message sent and the message was received.

Conley missed Game 5 of the second-round series against the Nuggets in Denver due to an Achilles injury he suffered in the final moments of the previous game, and they sorely missed his leadership. Now, facing elimination in Game 6 at home, with Conley returning, that message from that night rings true.

“At this point you have to know what’s at stake, what the stakes are,” Reid said. “Everyone wants the ring. We know the desperation, the urgency at this point. »

As a youth, Conley didn’t think his only Conference Finals appearance would come down to this, a four-game sweep at the hands of the near dynastic San Antonio Spurs in 2013. And after that, who could have seen Stephen Curry and, more late, Kevin Durant and the supernatural Golden State Warriors emerge and dominate the conference?

But then again, Conley didn’t see himself ending up in Minnesota with these Timberwolves. He thought that as his days in Utah were coming to an end, he would find himself in a city with a warm climate: Los Angeles.

“(The Jazz) asked me my favorite places and I told them, ‘Somewhere I have a chance to win.’ Minnesota wasn’t even on my list of teams,” Conley said. “It was the Clippers, the Lakers or other organizations that were more forward.”

Minnesota came in at the last minute, or the Los Angeles teams didn’t do their best. Utah was rebuilding and the Lakers chose D’Angelo Russell. The Clippers added Russell Westbrook following his exile from the Lakers. In other words, it was a curious game of musical chairs.

In a strange irony, Minnesota and Utah were facing off on deadline day when Conley caught wind of a three-way deal involving the Lakers, Jazz and Timberwolves. All three point guards were involved, along with many other players and draft picks.

“I was like I hadn’t heard anything about it from anyone in the organization, so it surprised me,” Conley said. “As you can imagine, with the timing, I was shocked.”

The Timberwolves were 30-28 at the end of the night, the Jazz 27-29 – so it’s conceivable that Conley didn’t see much difference between the team he was leaving and the one he came to. .

“At that point in my career, I was close to the point where I was being pushed toward teams that were in the Western Conference Finals, teams that had gone to the Finals the year before,” he said . “The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘We have a lot of work to do, we’re not there yet.’ » Just below the eighth, ninth seed. So how can I get this team to where I want to be? How can I turn this into what I want it to be as soon as possible? »

It turned out to be the best possible decision for Conley and certainly for the Timberwolves. He had already played with Rudy Gobert in Utah and he knew the potential of Anthony Edwards, a rising star.

Conveying urgency was a step-by-step process, and it started with his younger teammates and Edwards. They saw the work he did on his days off and wondered why he didn’t indulge in the softness of his thirty-something body.

“I need it, I’m not trying to sit back to back,” Conley said. “I’m not trying to be the 36-year-old prototype, the old man on the team. I want to be better than that.

Conley is a fan of cold baths, which aids recovery. But initially it was a shock to the system, and Edwards wanted no part of it.

“How do you get in there every day?” » asked Edwards.

“You have to come here with me,” Conley replied.

A week later, Edwards dipped his toe. He later got his entire foot back. Then his knees.

You see the picture.

“Now he’s there all the time,” Conley said.

It’s his way of leading by example, of not having to have the loudest voice in the room. The players watch and take note.

“Then guys say, ‘I’m going to eat less or rest more.’ I’m not wasting time, I’m not hanging out late,” Conley said. “I’m so focused on one goal right now, I need you all to be here with me. I know you may not feel ready, but you are ready.

For Conley, helping grow this from a .500 operation to a top contender while still being a big part of it has been a surprise, so he takes the new lease as a blessing. He doesn’t want his teammates to have regrets, because even if it’s their first real race, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll come back.

The implications of the luxury tax, as well as the upheaval in property ownership, confront the franchise. As fleeting as it is, this might be the Timberwolves’ best chance – because it won’t get any easier.

“I don’t realize this is your chance,” Conley said. “The first time you say to yourself: ‘Congratulations to us, we will continue to build’. Then they fired Lionel Hollins (at Memphis), we started hiring new coaches, roles changed, guys got paid, people left, people came. All this happened.

“That’s how it is here. We have a lot of guys making a lot of money now, and they’re young. We cannot be satisfied. You must take advantage of this opportunity.

It was almost as if he could see the future. From taking a 2-0 lead to falling 3-2 behind against champions who are finding their way.

“I’m one of those people, I don’t want to learn from losing,” Conley said. “I don’t want to learn by letting a team win a few games in a series to make us change certain things. Why not understand this in games? We are good enough to do it. I don’t have time for that, you don’t have time for that.

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