As Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley was conducting a postgame interview with a TNT reporter following his seven-triple, 27-point decimation of the Nuggets in Game 3, several of his teammates began loudly insisting that if he was going to shoot like that after adding a new baby to his family, well then, he was just going to have to go and have some more babies.
With the Jazz now one win away from closing out the Denver Nuggets in their first-round playoff series, the stork’s impact on Utah’s success remains murky, while the effects of Conley’s ridiculous shooting efficiency in the two contests he’s played are about as crystal-clear as you could ask for.
Granted, the two playoff games Conley has played with Utah represent a too-small sample size, and his prolific production thus far has come at an unsustainable rate. None of which makes what he’s done any less eye-popping.
The veteran guard is averaging 26.5 points and 4.0 assists, while shooting 65.4% from the floor and hitting 68.8% of his eight 3-point attempts per game. His 86.5 effective field-goal percentage and 89.8 true-shooting percentage are the stuff of video games on the “rookie” level.
“He’s brought energy and happiness. I mean, any time you have a kid, your energy and your aura is a little different. I think he brought that to the team, he kind of hyped them up a little bit,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said of Conley following Denver’s practice Monday. “They’re shooting the ball [well] and they’re playing really good basketball at this point. We have to figure it out and try to slow them down somehow — try to slow him down somehow, because he’s been playing phenomenal.”
Conley making his shots certainly has enabled Jazz fans to breathe a bit easier, filled with trepidation as they were about his frigid start to the season, to say nothing of the team’s recent history of postseason shooting from the point guard position.
Naturally, the Jazz’s past two postseason flameouts certainly weren’t the exclusive responsibility of the now-departed Ricky Rubio, but his failings within them sure became an emblematic catalyst for this past offseason’s sweeping changes.
JAZZ POINT GUARDS IN THE PLAYOFFS
A look at how Mike Conley’s admittedly brief two-game postseason stretch has compared to the playoff performances of predecessor Ricky Rubio:
Player, Season, Gms, Pts, Ast, FG%, 3P%, 3PA, EFG%, TS%
Ricky Rubio, 2018, 6, 14.0, 7.0, 35.4, 31.3, 5.3, 41.8, 47.1
Ricky Rubio, 2019, 5, 15.4, 8.6, 42.4, 20.0, 4.0, 45.5, 51.5
Mike Conley, 2020, 2, 26.5, 4.0, 65.4, 68.8, 8.0, 86.5, 89.8
Utah’s offense, the thinking went, simply did not have sufficient firepower to overcome certain teams, and Rubio’s lack of outside shooting ability was a liability. Well, the same certainly cannot be said for this postseason’s Jazz in general, or Conley specifically.
What Conley is providing now is precisely what the Jazz had in mind when they acquired him. His slow acclimation and early struggles (he shot 4 for 27 combined in his first two games with Utah, and just 40.9% from the field in 47 regular-season games) are all but forgotten and forgiven in the wake of his Orlando surge.
“He’s an incredibly smart player, but like all of us, if you’re overthinking something, it can be more difficult,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said Monday. “The clarity that he has about what we’re doing, what we want him to do, what’s expected of him from his teammates and his coaches, what he expects of himself, there’s clarity there for him. That allows him to be the player that he is, which is a guy that can play on the highest level. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
Thanks in part to Conley — plus maybe that Donovan Mitchell guy — this year’s playoff Jazz are electric in scoring the ball, averaging 125.5 points and a 131.1 offensive rating on 51.6% shooting, 43.3% from beyond the arc, a 61.6 EFG% and a 65.0 TS%. Just a year ago, in a 4-1 first-round loss to the Rockets, Utah averaged 97.8 points and had a 99.2 offensive rating, shot 40.0% overall and 35.8% from deep, and posted a 45.5 EFG% and 50.1 TS%.
Sure, the staggering leap in the Jazz’s offensive success can be attributed to myriad other factors, among them Denver’s apparent defensive ineptitude, Mitchell’s pronounced leap into superstardom, greater commitment to launching 3-pointers (29.9 attempts in 2018, 35.8 in 2019, and 39.3 thus far this year), and, simply, a greater multitude of players converting their open looks this time around.
The thing is, though, Rubio’s 31.3% conversion rate from deep two seasons ago, and his especially woeful 20.0% clip last season created a domino effect that further compounded Utah’s offensive issues: opponents simply began leaving him open beyond the arc, figuring the advantage lay in hedging to bolster help defense, or narrowing passing and driving lanes, rather than worry about his erratic jumper.
They figured he couldn’t make them pay for leaving him open, and they were correct.
Conley’s numbers are bound for an inevitable decline — his field-goal percentage is 23 points higher than Rubio’s was last year, his 3-point shooting almost 49 points higher — the fact remains that he is a sufficiently capable threat of making those shots that perimeter defenders can’t simply treat him as a nonentity.
“He’s just being aggressive, shooting the shots that he’s used to making,” said teammate Jordan Clarkson. “It’s just him staying in that mindframe of ‘I’m gonna take these shots and I’m gonna make them.’”
If that remains the case, Denver might be done for following Tuesday’s Game 5.
“[We’ve] just come with the same mindset that we’ve played with pretty much the whole series,” Conley said. “Defensively, pay attention to the details and try to limit them on the offensive glass. [In Game 4], they kind of got the advantage on us in that category and it showed. They were able to get second-chance points and [Jamal] Murray got going, obviously, so just continue to be ourselves, continue to fight. We know it’s not over until it is, so we’ve just got to continue to play.”
Jazz lead best-of-seven series 3-1
Game 1 • Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3 • Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4 • Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5 • Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. MT, TNT
Game 6 • Thursday, 2 p.m. MT, ESPN*
Game 7 • Saturday, time and TV, TBD*