It’s crazy to think that a year ago at this time, Utah Jazz fans were cursing out Dennis Lindsey for making the massive mistake of trading for an apparently washed-up Mike Conley.
The point guard looked uncomfortable on the court, unsure of what to do off-ball when Donovan Mitchell jumped into the lead playmaker role. His shooting was colder than your relationship with your mother-in-law. A hamstring injury that limited his availability was viewed either as additional proof of his worthlessness, or, conversely, as the best component of his game in that moment, depending on your level of vitriol.
And look at him now.
Where would the Jazz have been without Mike Conley in Friday night’s 106-100 victory over the Clippers? What would they have done without his quick decision-making? Without his aggressiveness? Without his efficiency? His coolness in the clutch?
Arguably Utah’s best offensive player through the team’s first five games of the 2020-21 season, he was inarguably that on Friday, racking up 33 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including 7 of 14 from deep. He also reeled off seven assists.
And when the Jazz were on the verge of falling apart down the stretch, it was Conley who pushed them.
“You know, honestly, I’m just happy to be able to see this thing grow, myself included, because last year was a tough year,” Conley said. “I just went through a lot personally — on and off the court, it was a tough year.”
All along, coach Quin Snyder preached patience — reminding critics that Conley was not only adapting to a completely foreign scheme after a dozen years with the Grizzlies, he had the additional chaos of trying to get settled in a brand-new place, having uprooted his family to move across the country after a dozen years in Memphis. Also, with the injury, his ability to develop chemistry with key teammates was stunted.
It took Conley longer to acclimate than anyone wanted, frankly. But now it’s indisputably happened — just look back to the close of the 2019-20 regular season, the bubble restart, his playoff performance against the Nuggets … and this young 2020-21 season.
Snyder, for one, could not be more thrilled to be vindicated.
Asked after the Clippers win how big Conley’s green light is now coming off a screen for a 3-point attempt, the coach quipped, “It’s like a green sun. If the sun was green. It’s that bright.”
Told of his coach’s enthusiastic support, Conley reciprocated the sentiment, saying his resurgence is owed to Snyder’s continued support.
“He knows how I feel about him, man — he means everything. As a coach, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him last year; he could have made a lot of different decisions on my part, whether to play me or to bench me or whatever came up at the time. And he stuck true to me, he’s given me nothing but confidence,” Conley said. “He’s always calling and texting me, checking on me, running over plays for the next game or next week’s game, whatever it may be. He’s had my back and I just appreciate it, and I’m just going to continue to go out there and fight for the team. And whatever my role is on a nightly basis, I’m gonna go out there and do it.”
Still, aside from newfound confidence, what exactly is working so well for the Ohio State product right now?
Snyder cited the guard’s craftiness in snaking through defenses, putting defenders on the wrong foot, and then capitalizing.
“He’s in positions that he’s tough to guard,” the coach said. “One of the biggest things tonight was when they started switching [on the] pick-and-roll, he was able to get in the lane with his quickness and make some plays for other people.”
Big man Derrick Favors pointed out Conley’s seemingly preternatural ability to make the right play. He didn’t grab the game by the throat — he just let it come to him, making the smart, patient reads he talked about after the Phoenix loss. When he needed to swing the ball, he did. When he needed to let it fly, he did.
“Mike did a good job tonight of just controlling the game. He was finding his shots, he was finding the teammates open for their shots,” Favors said. “And he came up big for us, hitting big shots at the end of the game, hitting big shots when we needed him to, knocking down 3s, getting into the paint and drawing fouls, getting into the paint and making layups, or finding me or Rudy at rim, kicking it out for 3s. He just did a great job of controlling the whole game and just making big plays for us.”
Mitchell said now that Conley has had some time with his teammates — Snyder pointed out that Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles were only on the court together last season for 13 games — he’s found a comfort level that’s made all the difference.
“Not rushing, kind of just doing his thing. And that’s the Mike Conley we all know, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of it,” Mitchell said.
For his part, Conley said the biggest difference between Thursday’s loss and Friday’s win is that he made a concerted effort to be aggressive.
Snyder is fond of saying that while passing the ball is always equated with unselfishness, turning down an open shot that’s a good option for your team can, in fact, be a selfish play. Conley took that to heart, determined to make the Clippers pay for it if they gave him too good of looks.
“For all of us, really, it was just the mindset of coming out to be aggressive. I think in [Thursday] night’s game, we were just trying to do the right thing too much, myself included, and turned down some looks that really would have gotten us some rhythm early in the game,” Conley said. “So this game, I just wanted to come out and not hesitate — take the look when I got it. And as the game went on, my teammates just continued to try to feed me the ball and put me in actions, and allowed me to continue going. So it was a it was a fun night, and a night that we definitely needed.”