Mike Conley Has Become Minnesota's Gipper

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves got their first of two regular-season wins over the Denver Nuggets in their fourth game of the season. They had looked like the same old Wolves in their first three games, blowing leads and failing to move the ball late in the fourth quarter. Minnesota had lost the season-opener in Toronto, beaten the Miami Heat at home, and lost in Atlanta.

Therefore, it felt like a big win when they beat Denver 110-89 at home. Anthony Edwards called Jaden McDaniels the defensive player of the year after he held Jamal Murray to 14 points. Then he flashed a smirk when a reporter asked about staving off Denver in the third quarter, preserving their halftime lead. Edwards had something percolating in his mind and was about to unleash it onto the world.

Mike Conley came through big in the third quarter, for sure,” Edwards said. “His nickname [is] Bite Bite. I call him Bite Bite because he looks like he’s ready to bite something. Mike Conley came through; Bite Bite came through big tonight.”

Conley walked into the locker room shortly after Edwards finished speaking to the media. Edwards turned to his 36-year-old teammate and asked, “Did you hear me do media today?” When Conley offered a short laugh and replied, “No,” Edwards pleaded with Conley to listen back to his interview. Conley’s teammates hadn’t established Bite Bite as a nickname for Conley.

Edwards had made it up on the spot.

Before a game against Army in 1928, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne told his team the story of George Gipp, a star halfback who passed in 1920. According to legend, Gipp was in his hospital bed when he asked Rockne to “Win one for the Gipper” someday.

“When the team’s up against it,” he told Rockne. “When things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys… tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and just win one for the Gipper.”

Ronald Reagan played Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne – All-American, and he used “Win one for the Gipper” as a political slogan. The 1980 film Airplane! spoofed the speech (and the former president). “Win one for the Gipper” has become a fixture in American society.

Conley, 36, is alive and well. But before the postseason, he told his teammates that he may not have many playoff runs left. After the Phoenix Suns beat the Timberwolves 125-106 in Game 82, Conley addressed the team for a few minutes. He emphasized the sacrifice and the whatever-it-takes mentality they needed to beat Phoenix and go on a playoff run.

“I told the guys that, selfishly, do it for me, man,” Conley said. “Help me out. Meet me at my level right now because I don’t have long. Y’all got forever, it feels like.”

“It meant a lot, man,” Edwards said in reaction to the meeting. “I think he said he hasn’t been to the Conference Finals since he was 24? So that’s crazy, man, knowing he’s like 36. You don’t know how many chances you get at going to the Conference Finals and competing at the highest level, so you’ve got to take advantage of the ones that you’ve got.”

Conley has been at the crossroads before. He has made the playoffs ten times and reached a dead end with the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz. He knew the stakes, personally and for the team. Conley is in his 18th NBA season and has made the All-Star and all-defense teams. He’s also won four sportsmanship awards and earned a Teammate of the Year award this season. Conley is their guiding hand on the court and a veteran leader off it.

“He’s been through many playoff series,” said Jaden McDaniels after Game 1 of the Phoenix series. “He knows when to calm us down or when we need to get a good shot, he just takes over, takes control. Mike Conley, he’s PG1. Super smart out there. He’ll tell you to do something, and it always works.”

“[Conley] even calmed me down at one point,” Chris Finch said after Game 3 of the Phoenix series. “We’ve been preaching it to stay calm, stay in the moment, next play, next play.… For a young team and an emotional team, these are little tests of your maturity, and Mike has his finger on the pulse of that. That’s why he’s so valuable for us.”

The Wolves have played with desperation, even though Edwards is 22 and Towns is 28. They’ve needed to because there is a lot at stake in the playoffs. Minnesota may have had to dismantle its expensive core if they had lost in the first round. Edwards and Towns haven’t gotten out of the first round, and Rudy Gobert, 31, may not have many prime years left.

However, Conley is the driving force behind Minnesota’s desperation. They closed out Game 4 of the Phoenix series, knowing Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Co. didn’t want the Wolves to sweep them. The Timberwolves took Game 2 in Denver without Gobert, knowing that the defending champions didn’t want to go down 0-2 at home. Conley is the genesis of their relentless will.

“They felt my urgency from the beginning of the playoffs,” said Conley after Game 2 in Denver. “Every practice, every film session, you need to be locked in. You need to be paying attention. Our game plans have been so well thought out and executed, and so far, that takes a lot of mental fortitude, a lot out of physicality. It’s not easy to do. What we do out there isn’t easy. We take the hard road, and guys are really buying into that.”

The Timberwolves are focused. They want to win one for Bite Bite.

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