Mike Conley had been playing tentatively, seemingly unsure of himself through the first four regular-season games of his Utah Jazz tenure.
And then, after getting knocked on his butt by a Clippers screen early in the third quarter of Wednesday’s game, he started playing angry. And what a difference it made.
Conley dropped 18 of his season-high 29 points in that third period, as Utah overcame a sparky L.A. team missing stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for a 110-96 victory at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
The win pushes the Jazz to 4-1 on the young season.
“Early in the third quarter — hit one, hit two, and just kind of kept it going. I could feel the energy from the crowd and from my teammates. I thought, yeah, this is a good game,” Conley said. “I knew it was gonna come. I hate that it had to start this way, but hopefully this is the beginning of the positive part.”
Actually, the night started promisingly enough for the new point guard who came in shooting just 20% from the field, as he made his first two attempts of the evening.
Three consecutive misses later, it seemed like maybe his struggles might continue, as he went into halftime with just six points.
Things were similarly grim for the Jazz as a whole, as they’d frittered away most of a 14-point lead thanks to an offensive lull and a 19-6 Clippers run to close the second quarter.
Who could have anticipated then that just a short time later, chants of “Con-ley! Con-ley!” would reverberate around the arena?
It all started with that knockdown.
After going hard to the court on defense, he looked in vain to the referee for a moving-screen call that was not forthcoming. So when his teammates forced the stop, he sprinted downcourt, received the outlet pass, and fired up a no-hesitation 3-pointer in what was arguably his most demonstrative moment of the young season.
Then, isolated on L.A. big man Patrick Patterson due to a switch, Conley put him on skates and drilled a stepback 3. After that, another incredible dribble-move sequence yielded a layup — not to mention a thunderous ovation from the home crowd.
As he went to the bench during a timeout, he gestured to the fans to let him hear it. He was met with chants and cheers thereafter.
“I’ve never experienced that before in 13 years of playing basketball,” he said afterward. “That’s unique and special.”
His teammates were thrilled to see it.
“Obviously, it felt good to see Mike be Mike today. It was definitely fun to watch, definitely fun to be out there, as well,” said reserve guard Emmanuel Mudiay. “… That's the [Conley] that I've known for awhile.”
“We all felt it. We all felt his excitement,” added Donovan Mitchell. “Mike’s a pretty calm guy, but he was yelling and screaming. So once we saw that, we were feeding off that, too.”
That’s an understatement. Behind his inspired play, Utah strung together a 27-6 run to turn a one-point deficit into an 81-61 advantage.
The Jazz wound up with 38 points in their most prolific period of the year.
And while Conley was the catalyst for the victory, he hardly did it alone.
Mitchell, who carried the scoring load in the team’s tepid first half, wound up with 24 points and five assists. Bojan Bogdanovic maintained his own irrational-confidence scoring streak, shaking off some early misses to ultimately chip in 14 points. Rudy Gobert added 13 points and six rebounds, and proved a menace in the paint again, frequently altering or outright dissuading myriad Clipper forays into the lane.
Utah also got a big contribution from its bench unit, as Joe Ingles tallied 10 points and seven assists, Mudiay had eight points and five assists, Ed Davis contributed nine boards, and Jeff Green chipped in eight points and three steals.
After the game, with Conley near his locker, Mudiay and Green exchanged some just-loud-enough faux bewilderment about what had just happened: “Did you see that 10?” Mudiay asked, referring to Conley’s jersey number. “That 10 was out there ballin’!”
Indeed, this was 10’s night. After the Clippers rallied to within 10 points midway through the fourth, they came out of a timeout playing zone. Conley surveyed the defense, took a couple dribbles to his right, and finding himself unguarded, calmly drained another triple (to finish 11 of 17 overall and 5 of 8 from deep).
On the next trip down the court, his alley-oop to Gobert sealed the deal — and proved a nice exclamation point to a storyline that coach Quin Snyder considered overblown to begin with.
“If he’d had a couple games like he did in the middle of the year, we wouldn’t be talking about it that much,” Snyder said. “It’s good to see him play well. … That’s who he is, so I don’t want to make too big a deal of it.”