Each episode of the children’s cartoon “Scooby-Doo” culminated with the Mystery Inc. gang capturing the villain via some elaborate trap, and then removing the perpetrator’s mask to reveal his or her true identity.
After the first two games of the Jazz’s 2019-20 season, there was a popular meme going around social media, showing the Scooby-Doo character Fred having apparently apprehended Utah point guard Mike Conley (who had shot a combined 4 for 27 in those matchups), only to then remove a mask and reveal him to actually be former Jazz point guard (and notoriously fickle shot-maker) Ricky Rubio.
So when Conley referred to his team’s breakout offensive effort in Saturday night’s 113-81 victory over Sacramento as “much-needed,” he could just as well have been talking about his own performance.
His final numbers were hardly earth-shattering — 12 points (on 5-for-11 shooting), eight assists, three rebounds and only two turnovers in 24 minutes of action. In fact, they were so ordinary as to get almost completely overshadowed by fellow newcomer Bojan Bogdanovic’s own 26-point explosion.
But considering how massively Conley struggled against both the Thunder and Lakers, “ordinary” against the Kings represented some serious progress. Timely progress too, considering three consecutive subpar performances heading into Monday’s matchup against Rubio and the overachieving, feel-good Suns would surely have set off blaring klaxons of criticism from overreactionary Jazz fans.
Beyond Conley’s improved shooting Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena, there was demonstrative improvement shown in both his playmaking and his overall familiarity with his new teammates as well.
“It was good to see Mike just settle in and find some comfort running our team,” coach Quin Snyder said afterward. “I think our guys were looking to him, and it was good to see that from him as well.”
Of course, Snyder played a significant role in making that happen.
In the first two games, the point guard was the first player subbed out of the game, at approximately the 6-minute mark of the first quarter. On Saturday, Snyder brought Donovan Mitchell to the bench first instead — a decision that yielded the dual benefit of enabling Mitchell to stabilize a previously shaky second unit, and allowing Conley some additional time to find his footing on the court.
“I thought it made some sense to flip he and Donovan as far as the rotation. It’s not a big change, but more than anything that we did is how those guys settled in,” Snyder explained. “… I felt like Donovan could be more impactful in that situation, and I also felt like it would give Mike a little more continuity.”
Continuity was certainly welcome for the 13th-year veteran.
In the season-opening win against OKC, he missed his first dozen shots and finished the game 1 for 16 overall, as his 3-point attempts were increasingly out of rhythm, and his off-hand floaters consistently short — a performance that left him “a little bit confused” and thinking “I don’t know what else to do.”
Then, at Staples Center in the loss to the Lakers, he missed his first six shots of the evening and finished 3 of 11 (along with four turnovers), his continuing struggles prompting him to equate his situation to “being in quicksand — you try harder and harder and it seems you just keep digging yourself into that hole.”
While he admitted to being frustrated, he also maintained that he remained confident and unconcerned. Snyder preached patience, arguing that additional reps would generate instinctiveness. And his teammates were unanimously unwavering in their support, expressing unquestioned belief that his shot would come around.
And honestly, a look at his numbers from the two previous seasons alone shows there’s precedence for Conley’s shot simply needing some time to round into form.
Last season, he didn’t make 50% of his shot attempts in a single game until the ninth matchup of the season. And in those first eight contests, he had myriad shooting nights to forget: 3 for 11 in the opener vs. the Pacers; 6 for 20 against the Jazz; 6 of 18 vs. the Wizards; 7 of 18 against the Jazz again; and and 3 for 16 in Phoenix. In those opening eight games, he shot a combined 47 for 131 — or 35.9%. He would go on to finish the season at 43.8% overall and 36.4% from deep.
It was a similar story in 2017-18. In the dozen games he played before suffering a season-ending injury, he shot above 50% in only two games, and shot just 38.1% overall and 31.2% from deep.
For his career, meanwhile, Conley has shot 44.0% from the field and 37.4% from beyond the arc. Given all those trends, it’s probably fair to theorize he won’t continue at the 23.7% field-goal and 17.6% 3-point clips he’s currently at this year.
Again, he was never overly concerned. And against the Kings, he was simply pleased to see the team as a whole moving in the right direction.
“We moved the ball a lot better. The last few games, we got a bit stagnant and the guy with the ball kind of had to make plays,” Conley said. “[Saturday], we really just moved it around the horn, got to the paint, started the blender, and everybody was really unselfish.”
JAZZ AT SUNS
At Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
Tipoff • Monday, 8 p.m. MDT
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 2-1; Suns 2-1
Last meeting • Jazz, 118-97 (April 3)
About the Jazz • Utah has held each of its three opponents under 100 points, and is leading the NBA in defensive rating (91.9) and points allowed (90.3). … The Jazz’s 18 made 3-pointers vs. Sacramento are tied for the third-highest single-game total by any team this season. … Forward Royce O’Neale is off to an efficient start, ranking third in the NBA in field-goal percentage (70.6%).
About the Suns • Former Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio missed Phenix’s win over the Clippers on Saturday night with a left knee contusion. He is averaging 10 points and 10 assists per game. … Phoenix leads the NBA in assists per game (29.3) and net rating (10.9), and is third in offensive rating (122.2). … Despite missing Rubio, backup point guard Ty Jerome (right ankle sprain), and center Deandre Ayton (25-game suspension), Phoenix dealt the Clippers their first loss Saturday, 130-122.