Mike Conley waited 14 years to play in the NBA All-Star Game. What was an 12 extra minutes?
Just one of two players not to take the court in the first quarter of Sunday’s 70th annual All-Star Game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the 33-year-old Utah Jazz guard at least got to make his long-awaited debut in unique fashion: lining up across from Team LeBron point guard Chris Paul for the opening tip of the second period.
He lost that jump ball, and he and his Team Durant teammates — including fellow Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell — lost the game, 170-150 to a Team LeBron squad featuring Jazz center Rudy Gobert and coach Quin Snyder …
Which had exactly zero ultimate impact on his ability to enjoy an evening he called both “unreal” and “one of the better moments of my life.
“… It was great to get out there; I was not prepared for the tip! I was told I was going out there and I was getting ready to guard somebody, and I’m looking back and they’re like, ‘Mike, go jump, go jump!’” Conley recalled with a laugh. “I wish I’d have won the tip, but outside of that it was a great experience, a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the whole deal.”
Conley said he got the news he was going to the All-Star Game on Friday night at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He and his family were sitting down for dinner when his cellphone started getting one call after another from numbers he didn’t recognize. He sent them to voicemail. His dad/agent tried calling. The point guard figured he’d hit him up after dinner. Finally, a member of Jazz management sent a text: Someone from the NBA needs to talk to you now, please.
“He’s like, ‘Hey Mike, I got some good news. There’s a spot available in the 3-Point Contest and the All-Star Game.’ All I heard was ‘3-Point Contest,’ and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, for sure. I’d love to do that.’ And [then] I was like, ‘… And an All-Star spot?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, man, if you’re if you’re available,’” Conley said. “I was like, ‘S---, I’m doing nothing. I’m sitting here with my family. I’m on the first thing smoking.’”
Serving as an injury replacement for Suns guard Devin Booker, the ecstatic Conley played a quiet 12 minutes, scoring just three points — on a third-quarter triple off an assist from Mitchell.
Nevertheless, so many others at the game expressed joy on his behalf.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t really show emotion, negative or positive, he’s kind of just smooth sailing throughout. … And then when he got the call, and we found out, you could see it,” said Mitchell. “… We’re all happy and excited for him to be here, for him to make it. He’s definitely deserved it many years before. But for it to happen for him this year, the way we’re playing, the way he’s playing, is something that we’re all elated about and ecstatic about.”
“Man, I’m so happy for Mike. … Not to date myself, but I actually hosted Mike on a visit when I was in college. I was about to leave Wake [Forest] to go to the NBA, and Mike was in high school and I hosted him and Greg Oden. So I’ve known Mike for a long time now,” said Paul. “And, you know, he just stays the course. I’m happy for him. And this is something that’s well-deserved. Certain guys in this league and over the course of their career, they don’t need things like this for validation or for us players to know how good of a player that he is.”
Team Durant coach Doc Rivers said before the game he was happy to have Conley finally make it — but that he’d made no promises about playing time.
“I’m really happy for Mike. Number one, it’s great to see him playing well. He’s such a great human being. … It’s really nice,” said Rivers. “I have no idea the playing time or anything like that. … A lot of people say they don’t want to play and then do. And if I’ve learned anything, if I’m going to offend anyone, it’ll be the West players, and not the East players, since the East players, I’m going to have to see [again soon].”
Conley said he was fine with his limited minutes — as soon as he got on the scoreboard.
“Once I got the bucket, I was like, ‘I’m good. You can take me out, do whatever,’” Conley said.
Mitchell, meanwhile, making his second consecutive All-Star appearance, was a bit more productive than his backcourt mate.
He played 28 minutes — including some key ones to start the higher-intensity Elam Ending fourth quarter — and was Team Durant’s fifth-highest scorer, totaling 15 points (on 6-for-12 shooting) to go along with four rebounds and four assists.
“I definitely felt more comfortable. … It’s just like a pick-up game, but with the best players in the world. So you’re trying to find your balance,” Mitchell said. “… Just to see coach out there, see Rudy out there, Mike, all the guys, it was a special moment for not just us, but the fans and the organization.”
He also was thrilled to be the one to get the assist on Conley’s score.
“We were trying [to get him a bucket], we were in the huddle trying to find ways to get him a shot,” Mitchell explained. “… But he’s 65 years old, so it took him awhile to get used to it and get in the flow.”
Conley comes thiiiiiis close in 3-Point Contest
Conley, who also replaced Booker in the 3-Point Contest, showed that he belonged there, too. Though Steph Curry came into the competition as the prohibitive favorite, Conley sure made him work for it.
In the first round, Conley went second-to-last and used a 5-for-5 effort on his moneyball rack — where each ball was worth two points instead of one — to post a 28-point total and clinch his spot in the final. Curry, going last, was the only one to best his score, putting up an incendiary 31 points.
In the championship round, Boston’s Jayson Tatum led off and struggled to a 17-point total. Conley followed, making four shots from his moneyball rack, adding a make from the “Mountain Dew Zone” (set 6 feet back, and worth three points), and totaled 27 points to put the pressure on Curry.
The Warriors guard started slow, missing four of his first five shots, but soon caught fire. Still, it came down to his final shot — make it, and he’d win; miss it, and Conley would become the first lefty champion in the event’s history. It swished.
“During Steph’s round, Donovan and Jaylen [Brown] and everybody kept saying, ‘Uh-oh, Mike! Uh-oh, Mike!’ Like I might win. And I’m like, ‘Everybody shut up, shut up, shut up!’ As soon as everybody started talking, Steph caught fire,” Conley said. “I’m up one, and he has one ball left, and I’m like, ‘Man, if he misses this, I win. I can’t believe it.’ But I knew in the back of my mind what was about to happen — that man is the greatest shooter of all time for a reason.”
Mitchell was eliminated in the first round, though he put up a respectable 22-point total.