So, it’s begun again.
The NBA has returned, as have the Jazz, after 141 days away from real games, weathering through a pandemic, as well as significant calls for proper social justice across the country, basketball commencing once more with a 106-104 Utah win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday in a bubble in Florida.
“There’s so much that has happened,” said Quin Snyder, afterward, “it felt like more than a singular game.”
Whatever it was, it was far from perfect, the Jazz struggling over long stretches with iso ball, turnovers, poor shooting and loose defense. But they gathered themselves with just enough to get what they wanted — victory.
Without the help of Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz started anew with a refreshed perspective, a view that required — and will go on requiring — more from everyone else. Aside from team stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, two players who made big plays down the stretch, the others upon whom a heavy portion of the Bogdanovic absence will fall are … Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson.
Not that they will play the same role as Bogdanovic, and not that the Jazz will forsake their share-the-ball methodology at the offensive end, centered on Mitchell. Rather, as was evident against New Orleans, scoring from the veteran point guard and shooting guard will be counted on to provide the production and leadership necessary for the Jazz to close within shouting distance of expectations for a season of promise that transformed into an undulating season, then into a lost season, and now into a strange one, picked up as it has been from where it skidded to a halt in March.
Mitchell and Gobert will do their things, be dominant, but they’ll need help — the kind Clarkson and Conley brought against the Pelicans. Clarkson got 23 points off the bench and Conley went for 20.
Rudy Gobert recently said of Conley: “He’s going to be a huge part of what we do.”
Said Conley: “I’m super clear on what I have to do.”
On Thursday, the point guard directed the Jazz in the second half, finishing with the team’s best plus-minus number: a positive 12.
It was much ballyhooed when Conley arrived in Utah last summer. The 12-season vet had ascended to great heights in Memphis, becoming a foundational figure for the Grizz, not just in the numbers he produced, the points he scored, the assists he collected, his strong performances in the playoffs, but also by way of his effect on an entire team. Conley earned his reputation as the best teammate in the league.
In the weeks ahead, he’ll have to continue rolling all his collective powers into a force for the Jazz, not just because of Bogdanovic’s unavailability, but on account of the fact that, without or without Bojan, the Jazz have been crying out all along for Conley to finally do what he can do.
That call has only been answered sporadically.
Some nights he sang, some nights he sagged.
At first, the excuse was that while Conley was smart and crafty and experienced, he had gotten so rutted in a specific way of playing — along with Marc Gasol — that the move to Snyder’s attack was jarring to him. He was thinking too much, and too often in an extra nanosecond, a pass, a shot, a play would break down as Conley did his deliberating. He couldn’t find his place.
Next thing, he got injured, sitting out a flurry of games, then came back, then got dinged again, then came back again.
Now Conley is whole again.
“A lot of things have taken time,” he said. “But everything’s really comfortable right now.”
He had his moments against New Orleans, but admitted improvement is still needed.
He’s had time to heal, to rest, to ruminate, to process the offense and the defense. He’s had time to understand and recognize where Mitchell likes to get the ball, from where Gobert is most effective, how the moving parts are supposed to flow.
Even after missing 23 games, Conley had still played in 41 — now 42 — enough to set and reset in his mind what the Jazz want and need, what he wants and needs to do, along with Mitchell and Gobert, to cut a star-tipped threat that should be sharp enough to carve out what the Jazz carved only erratically over the first 64 games.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said.
As for Clarkson, the Jazz are pleased to have him, having swapped away Dante Exum in trade. He immediately boosted the bench, months ago, upon arrival, and, specifically, the Jazz badly needed his scoring in the back half of the return game.
“When Jordan has space to work, he’s difficult to guard,” Snyder said. “That’s what you saw in the second half. … JC was able to create and get to the rim.”
As is, Mitchell and Gobert are the names on the marquee, and Conley and Clarkson will be necessary names for the Jazz to find their best form.
Snyder said it on Thursday night: “This is a team that’s going to have to find itself.”
C and C will be integral in the discovery.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.