Mike Conley is back.
Not really all the way back yet, y’know, but back enough.
The Utah Jazz and their fans happily took what they could get Friday night.
After missing nine late-season games due to right hamstring soreness, the veteran point point returned to action in the Jazz’s penultimate matchup of the regular season, a 109-93 decimation of the thoroughly-tanking Oklahoma City Thunder.
He started at point guard, sending Georges Niang back to a reserve role, and came out aggressive.
Conley’s shot was off a bit, as he made just 2 of 7 overall and 1 of 3 from deep, but he impressed with his activity level.
He frequently attacked the defense of OKC rookie Theo Maledon, and wound up going 5 of 6 from the free-throw line to finish with 10 points. He also added three assists and two rebounds. His defense was, by his own admission, a step slow, as Maledon in turn attacked him on several occasions as well, and wound up enticing the first-time All-Star into a pair of fouls.
“It felt great to be out there, just [to] get your game timing and the feel of the game a little bit,” Conley said afterward. “… As far as the game’s concerned, there was nothing that really took a while to get back. I think mostly it was just the conditioning portion of it.”
It showed a bit.
Conley said after the morning shootaround that he expected to be on a minutes restriction both Friday and in Sunday’s finale in Sacramento, and coach Quin Snyder confirmed pregame that would be the case, though he declined to estimate how many minutes that would be, saying he wanted to maintain flexibility.
The point guard wound up playing his normal rotational stretches in the first half — subbing out with Rudy Gobert midway through the first quarter, returning with a couple minutes left to take on the Thunder bench, et cetera.
He finished playing 16 minutes, 23 seconds in the opening half — and Snyder saw no good reason to tempt fate and send him back out there after the break.
Wise choice, as the Jazz were up 14 at halftime and led by 26 at the end of the third.
“I thought he played well — he was doing the things that he does,” Snyder said afterward. “Obviously, he got a little tired — we ran him a little longer than we intended to really, in the first quarter — you could see him getting a little fatigued as it went along. But he’s got a presence on the floor. … As his conditioning improves, he’ll get in an even better rhythm on both ends.”
Snyder described the plan in general for Conley as “a gradual ramp-up, be it the next game and then into the ensuing week, getting ready for the playoffs.”
Conley said that after prior stretches of multiple missed games, he’s found he typically struggles with his wind in his initial return, but is fine by his second game back. The problem, he joked, is that he gets himself far too amped up ahead of his return game.
“Mostly the first game is like, I’m working myself up and just so excited, I do a thousand squats and a thousand lunges just getting ready for the game, and find out that I’ve just worn myself out before I even get out there,” he said with a laugh.
With the win, the Jazz are now 51-20 on the season, and will secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with either a victory Sunday in Sacramento, or if the Suns lose either of their final two games, both against the Spurs.
Conley said he never considered sitting out the remainder of the regular season if he was healthy enough to play, noting there was value in him getting onto the court for situations and pace that simply can’t be replicated in a practice setting.
His All-Star teammate, Gobert, said he definitely felt the value of Conley being back out there after Utah’s offense struggled to get much of anything going in Wednesday’s loss to Portland.
“It was great to have him back. We missed him,” said the Frenchman, who added 16 points, 18 rebounds, and two blocks in 27 minutes of action. “… He looked great to me. I feel like he was quick, he was making the right decisions. Obviously, he didn’t play the second half, but I thought in the first half, he really gave us a lift. That’s what we expect him to do. He’ll find his rhythm and hopefully get back to the level that he is comfortable playing [at]. If he plays the way he played tonight every night. I’m totally fine with that.”