As the Jazz were reeling off one win after another while Mike Conley sat on the sidelines with a hamstring strain, a narrative started to gain traction among a not-insignificant faction of the fanbase: Maybe this team is better off without the guy intended to be its starting point guard. Maybe the inevitable return of a guy shooting less than 40% from the field is just going to throw a big ol’ monkey wrench into what’s become a fine-tuned machine.
Well, Conley is back, and granted, it’s only been two games, but the Jazz’s high-performance engine has not yet ground to a sputtering halt. Nor do the Jazz expect it to.
Were they playing well without Conley? Undeniably. Had they found an effective synergy with Joe Ingles back in the starting lineup, splitting ball-handling duties with Donovan Mitchell, while Emmanuel Mudiay stepped up and juiced the second unit? No doubt.
And yet, Conley’s teammates never bought into the idea that the 13-year vet who’d been such a key component of all those undermanned-but-overachieving Memphis Grizzlies teams was now somehow an impediment to Utah’s own success.
“We need him,” Rudy Gobert said simply, after Conley made his comeback Saturday against the Kings. “Like I keep repeating, if you want to go as far as we want to go, which is winning a championship, he’s a key piece of what we do.”
He’s shown that much in the Jazz’s past two victories.
In Saturday’s easy win against Sacramento, he played 15 minutes and 14 seconds, and was clearly content to sit back, not force anything, and try to fit into the broader scheme of what his teammates were doing. He attempted only three shots and made just the final one, though it was a timely 3-pointer that stopped cold the Kings’ burgeoning momentum. Meanwhile, he totaled three assists, and impressed his teammates.
“There’s a lot of guys that, when they come back from injury, they are trying to get their rhythm back [by] hitting shots,” noted Bojan Bogdanovic. “He’s just ... trying to involve all of us and be patient. So it’s big-time for us to have him back.”
Donovan Mitchell added, “The biggest thing I noticed was his competitiveness on the defensive end.”
Conley’s approach certainly didn’t go unnoticed by his coach, either.
“Mike is as much a part of our group and kind of the identity that we have built. Even though he has been out for a bit, that is who he is,” Snyder said. “The bucket that he hit was a big bucket, too. It was a momentum play and kind of gave us a bit of a boost. It says a lot about him that he isn’t thinking about himself at all, not that I would even expect that.”
On Monday night, in a higher-stakes blowout victory vs. the Pacers, the point guard made his presence felt in far more demonstrable fashion.
In 17:56 of game time, he powered the second unit with his shooting stroke, draining 6 of 8 attempts — including two key back-to-back buckets in the third quarter — en route to 14 points. He also fit in seamlessly as part of a lineup that included playing alongside newcomer Jordan Clarkson.
For his part, Conley credited his teammates for always believing in him, for encouraging him through his rehab, for not losing faith in him when his initial comeback from a five-game absence was halted after only 19 minutes on the court, leading to another 14 games missed.
“Man, we’re a family. Those are my brothers, and they mean everything to me. They’re the ones pushing me through even when I’m not able to be there with them. ... That support is something you don’t find on most teams,” he said. “…These guys have been pushing me through all season, and that is how we do. We just lift each other up, have fun when we play, and that is why we love playing together.”
Asked in the wake of Royce O’Neale’s contract extension how the Jazz might yet most improve with the trade deadline on the horizon, Dennis Lindsey, the executive vice president of basketball operations, noted “the most obvious answer is Mike’s re-integration into the team.
“The team changed, not only externally but internally, with a few different players playing, so Quin has adjusted tactics and strategy, especially offensively. We’re doing a few different things with our spacing, with our bigs. Mike’s been around that, but Mike hasn’t been in it with his teammates, so that’s the biggest piece for us moving forward, getting him comfortable,” Lindsey added on Sunday. “Without Mike, the schedule was set up as such that we were going to win a few games. … We’re anxious to mark ourselves against some of the better teams as our schedule’s turning. It’s time for us to see what that level looks like.”
JAZZ AT WARRIORS
At Chase Center, San Francisco
Tipoff • Wednesday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 30-13; Warriors 10-35
Last meeting • Jazz, 114-106 (Dec. 13)
About the Jazz • Utah now ranks eighth in the NBA for both season-long offensive rating (111.2) and defensive rating (106.3). … The Jazz’s 122.5 O-rating over the past 10 games leads the league in that span. … Rudy Gobert’s 20-point, 14-rebound effort vs. Indiana was his 32nd double-double of the season, tying him with LeBron James for the fourth-most among all players this season.
About the Warriors • Golden State is coming off a 129-124 overtime loss to the Blazers on Monday in which Portland’s Damian Lillard dropped 61 points. … Longtime Jazz guard Alec Burks scored a team-high 24 points in the last matchup with Utah. … Guard D’Angelo Russell leads the team in both scoring (23.3) and assists (6.5). … The Warriors are last in the NBA in O-rating, at 103.3.