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Mike Conley says the Utah Jazz need to toughen up now that opponents are gunning for them every night

Rather than “look at the ref to bail us out” after absorbing punishment, the veteran point guard implores his teammates to embrace the “dogfight” and start responding in kind,

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) and Memphis Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen (3) hits the deck as Conley tries to keep the ball as the Utah Jazz host the Memphis Grizzlies, Mar. 26, 2021 at Vivint Arena.

There was a lot of “but at least”-type explanation coming from the Utah Jazz following their latest loss to middling Minnesota on Monday night.

They couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, but at least they eventually struck the right balance between continuing to fire away and getting to the hoop.

Sure, they were on the wrong end of a 31-point swing, as an 18-point lead eventually became a 13-point deficit, but at least they fought back and were in a position to win.

And yeah, they dropped back-to-back games and inexplicably wound up on the wrong end of a season sweep at the hands of the Wolves, but at least they didn’t make the same mistakes on Monday that they did on Saturday.

For the most part, everyone said all the right things, touched on all the familiar notes afterward — “learning experience” this, “keep getting better” that, “never too high, never too low” blah blah blah.

And so it was that Mike Conley’s response to a question about dealing with Minnesota’s physicality stood out for its fiery, aggressive, pointed, and decidedly non-bland nature.

The Jazz, he said, need to toughen up.

“We have to combat that with the same type of physicality. We cannot just take every punch and take every elbow, take every push, and look at the ref to bail us out. We have to stand up, stand our ground, be aggressive, be physical, and just kind of grind games out,” Conley said. “It’s that time of the year where teams are going to be gunning for us regardless of their situation or our situation, so every night is going to be a dogfight. And we’ve got to realize that from the time to jump ball starts at the last second of the fourth quarter.”

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He’s not wrong.

Rudy Gobert echoed the sentiment in tangential fashion, noting that opponents such as the Wolves will now take on the Jazz with a mentality of having nothing to lose.

“Some teams are playing with no pressure, they’re just playing free, they’re just having fun — and every year is the same; at the end of the season, those teams are always the hardest to play against because they’re just playing free,” he said.

The Jazz cannot say the same right now.

Part of it, no doubt, is the absence of Donovan Mitchell, who’s now missed five consecutive games on account of a sprained right ankle.

It’s more than that, though.

Utah’s been lauded all season long for the beauty of its offense — all that ball movement, all those voluminous-yet-efficient shooters … And every once in awhile, Gobert will remind people that the Jazz are really only at their best when they’re bringing a nasty, edgy defensive disposition to match.

Quin Snyder frequently invokes the difficulty in balancing those two competing interests, noting how his team’s ability to be disruptive defensively — beyond Gobert, of course — is inherently limited by the default starting lineup being filled out by 6-foot-8 Bojan Bogdanovic, 6-4 Royce O’Neale, 6-1 Mitchell, and the 6-foot Conley. Neither of the team’s two primary bench players, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles, are known for their physical presence, either.

And so it was that Snyder invoked his own “but at least” on Monday night in pointing that while his players have struggled recently to take care of the ball and to dominate the defensive glass (notably in Saturday’s loss to Minnesota), neither of those problem areas were significant issues in the rematch.

Gobert said that even as Utah fell behind by a baker’s dozen in the final quarter, nobody panicked; they held firm in their belief that if they continued adhering to their core tenets — share the ball, attack the rim, play tough defense — they could mount a comeback.

And they did.

Conley, however, while recognizing the value in not giving up, also cited a need for some urgency to start avoiding such predicaments to begin with.

“We’re learning, we’re learning. And they’re great lessons for us going into the playoffs,” he said. “Hopefully we’re getting them out now before we get to the time where we’re playing better competition.”

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