Mike Conley's improvement has helped the Memphis Grizzlies to the brink of franchise history and a top-four seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Conley and the Grizzlies try to continue their climb in the standings and go for a team-record 51st win in Wednesday night's road game against the struggling Portland Trail Blazers.
After having a strong March, Conley opened this month by hitting a last-second layup in a 92-90 victory over West-leading San Antonio on Monday. He finished with a team-best 23 points as the Grizzlies (50-24) improved to 10-3 this season when he scores 20 or more.
Memphis signaled it was ready to rely more on the sixth-year guard when it traded leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto on Jan. 30. Conley has lived up to those expectations by averaging 18.5 points over his last 16 games - 5.3 more than in his first 56 - and 7.0 assists.
"He's constantly getting better on the court and being a leader, putting players in the right position," forward Zach Randolph said. "So I'm happy for the young fellow. Sky's the limit for him."
With Conley's help, the Grizzlies have won three straight and 20 of 26. They now have the same record as third-place Denver in the West, but the Nuggets hold the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series. Memphis and Denver are the only non-division leaders that can claim one of the West's top-four seeds.
"We want to keep pushing," Randolph said. "We want to keep getting better ourselves, try to stay in third or the fourth spot and try to get home-court advantage. Try to get to that next level."
The only other time the Grizzlies reached 50 wins in 2003-04, they lost their four subsequent regular-season games and all four playoff contests against San Antonio.
Memphis can break the 50-win mark for the first time by posting a third straight victory over the Blazers (33-41). Conley had a career-high 15 assists and 14 points, including six in the final minute, in the most recent matchup, a 102-97 win March 12 that snapped the Grizzlies' three-game skid in Portland.
Conley had 20 points in a 91-85 home victory over the Blazers on March 6 and is averaging 20.2 over his last nine games. This time, he will face a Portland team that's dropped five in a row and is close to being eliminated from playoff contention.
The Blazers, who begin a five-game homestand Wednesday, are 11th in the West and 5 1/2 games back of eighth with eight contests remaining.
Leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge's three-game absence due to a sprained right ankle has hardly helped, and it's unknown if he'll return against Memphis.
Portland trailed throughout a 112-102 loss in Utah on Monday despite Wesley Mathews' 23 points.
Damian Lillard set an NBA single-season rookie record for 3-pointers with 169.
"It's an honor to be able to (break the record)," said Lillard, 20 of 37 from 3-point range over the last seven games. "But I wish I would have done it in a win. It's bittersweet."
Lillard totaled 47 points in last month's two losses to Memphis.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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