Mike Conley’s no stranger to injuries. The heel injury that led to a six-week absence in 2015-16, and which ultimately required surgery and necessitated missing 70 games in 2017-18. The broken vertebra three seasons ago. The facial fracture in that playoff series that famously led to him dramatically returning while wearing a protective mask.
By comparison, the tweaked hamstring he suffered in the first half against the Sixers on Dec. 2 seems insignificant. But it’s required a methodical mindset that’s been difficult for him in the interim.
“You know, it's tough, ’cause I've played with a lot of stuff in my career. I've hurt my back and all that stuff. I've had a few that were pretty tough. But a hammy's new for me,” Conley said after Sunday’s practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus. “That's why they're like, 'Be patient, be patient, don't push it.' And I'm just trying to push it every day. So I'm just trying to stay engaged and help the guys as much as I can.”
That tradeoff between patience and apparently aggressive rehab may pay off soon.
After missing the Jazz’s past five games, the point guard is hoping for a return to action in the team’s next matchup, this Tuesday against Orlando at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“[He and the training staff are] putting our heads together more and more,” Conley said. “I’m being patient, and whenever time that time is, we are preparing for trying to play as soon as possible, so hopefully it's Tuesday. We'll see.”
Reserve guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who’s gotten some extra run in Utah’s rotations since Conley has been out, noted that his teammate has been antsy to return: “He’s a competitor — I know he felt like he could have played the next game the day he got hurt. … He’s felt like he could play every game.”
That said, Mudiay added that Conley has been contributing to the team, even if he hasn’t been playing.
“He’s a natural leader, so even when he was in the locker room, even when he wasn’t playing, you heard his voice. On the bench, you heard his voice,” he said. “So, kind of an extended coach for me, as well; just trying to teach me some stuff, telling me what he sees out there.”
For Conley’s part, he noted that playing in only 12 games in the 2017-18 season was an eye-opening experience, as it really hindered his ability to connect with his teammates.
So he made it a point to ensure that wouldn’t happen while sitting out this time around.
“You get kind of distant from the team ’cause your schedule's a little bit different — you come in a little earlier, you leave later, and you're not really around the guys,” Conley said. “So I just made it a point to be around them as much as possible during the process.”
That’s entailed being vocal in the intervening practices, making it a point to be seen by teammates after getting his rehab work in. Then, in games, he’s a participant in the huddles — asking questions of and making suggestions to the coaches, pointing things out to teammates that he sees.
And so, while he’s been frustrated by his inability to play, he still feels as though his time has been productive.
“‘I’m really learning the team — the way we go through our ups and downs game by game, and our body language, and different things that affect us. It’s easy to see from the bench. It’s easy to see interactions between players and coaches, the chemistry on the court,” Conley said. “I actually think it was a blessing, being able to sit back and look at it from [a] different lens, and I think it’ll help me when I come back and hopefully help the team.”
He just hopes that’s sooner rather than later.
Conley said he not only recognizes the trainers “know what they're doing and I trust them,” regarding the cautious approach they’re taking, but, in fact, when he first met them, he let them know there might be times they’d have to rein him in.
“I even had a conversation before the season that they're gonna have to save me from myself sometimes, ’cause I'll play through anything,” Conley said. “And this is one of those things — a hamstring is something you just don't want to mess with. I would have loved to have played four games ago. So I'm just trying to stay patient and stay ready.”
Nevertheless, even though he knows the methodical approach has been the right one, that doesn’t mean his forbearance is limitless.
“I’m not angry at all about sitting out,” he said. “Obviously, I’m angry that I can’t be out there playing.”