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‘Villain’ Mike Conley, playing in his old home, is a major reason the Utah Jazz have retaken control against Memphis

Veteran point guard’s efficient shooting, savvy experience, and improved defense have given his second team a 2-1 series lead over his first one, with Game 4 set to come Monday night.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) fouls Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) as the Utah Jazz take on the Memphis Grizzlies during Game 1 of the first-round playoffs at Vivint Arena, May 23, 2021.

Memphis, Tenn. • Hearing Mike Conley referred to as a “villain” is jarring enough.

Conley being the one to throw the term out there himself is just extra levels of weirdness.

He’s the NBA’s ultimate good guy, after all — the consummate teammate, active in the community, an All-Star-level player so even-keeled that he’s never received a technical foul from a referee in his now-14-year NBA career.

Villain?

Well, considering what the longtime now-ex-Memphis Grizzlies star did to these new, young, upstart Memphis Grizzlies in Saturday night’s Game 3 win by the Utah Jazz — and in the series as a whole, for that matter — it’s perhaps a more understandable sentiment, even if Memphians themselves still revere him too much to ever bestow such an unflattering descriptor upon him.

After dropping 27 points, hitting seven shots from beyond the arc, and contributing eight assists and three rebounds Saturday, Conley was still a little in disbelief at being the one to take down Ja Morant and the rest of the Grizz at the “Grind House.”

“Just seeing a guy that is so talented, a young superstar in the league, wearing the jersey I’m so used to wearing, getting the cheers from the crowds that I’m so used to hearing — you know, it’s surreal. It’s like full circle,” Conley said. “You never thought that it would be this way — I never did, at least. It’s like, sometimes you just live long enough to become the villain, and I’ve become that for the Memphis Grizzlies now. I’ve just got to take that in stride and continue to do what I do, and have fun with that part of the game.”

Conley is certainly having fun in this series, which the Jazz now lead 2-1 (Game 4 is Monday at 7:30 p.m. MDT at the FedEx Forum).

Through the first three games of the series, Conley is averaging 23.0 points, 11.3 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 44.0% from the field, 50.0% from 3, and has made all 12 of his free-throw attempts. He’s committing just 2.0 turnovers in 35.3 minutes.

“The biggest thing is, he’s just locked in. He just has a different look,” said Donovan Mitchell. “That’s one of the things that I saw from him in the bubble, and I’ve seen it at an even higher level now. He understands it. He played for Memphis, what, [12] years? At the end of the day, there’s still love. You can see it. There’s also love in competing against them.”

To that end, after Conley had some wobbles and shaky moments defensively in Game 2 while trying to slow Morant (who’d total 47 points), he was far more steady on that end Saturday, limiting the second-year guard to a more palatable 28 on 10-for-23 shooting.

“Mike is one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA — his quickness, his hands, his experience, his knowledge of the game,” said Rudy Gobert. “He’s making good decisions and quick decisions. … We’re really confident with him guarding anyone.”

“Obviously, Ja is such a terrific player, [but] I thought, really as much as anything, Mike Conley was unbelievable,” added coach Quin Snyder. “Just his quickness, his presence on the ball.”

While Morant has been a deserving staple in the highlight reels for his otherworldly athleticism, Conley has been the steadily effective old vet, quietly succeeding with his subtle, nuanced array of efficient shooting, savvy experience, and intuitive feel for the game.

He can’t match Morant’s ability to barrel into the paint, get into a center’s chest, and fling in some breathtaking contortionist layup. Instead, he just runs Dillon Brooks into one screen after another, comes free, and buries the open look. He just keeps getting his man on his hip, probing into the lane, drawing the attention of a help defender, then finding a just-abandoned teammate in the corner.

“Mike was terrific, man — on both ends of the floor. He was Mike. Conley. He always has been for us all year, and he’s taken it to an even [higher] level,” said Mitchell. “And I feel like when you have a guy like that who can handle the ball, who can control the game as well, it makes my life and my job easier. When I get certain shots, it’s because he sees things, he’s communicating that with me, he’s putting me in positions to go ahead and score and make plays, too. A lot of that is Mike Conley being here. He’s big-time.”

Mitchell has enjoyed this series’ natural narrative of Conley vs. Morant: “You got the O.G. and then you got the young guy; I think that’s pretty dope. It’s a dope story,” he said. But he’s also loved that his teammate and backcourt partner hasn’t gotten sucked into making it about that, that he’s just going out and competing and remaining true to his game.

As for Conley, it’s pretty simple: He’s got zero room for nostalgia, for memories, for good feelings. The Jazz — his team now — are trying to win a championship. To do that, he’s got to take down his old team first. He’s got to end their feel-good season. He’s got to put them away and send them home.

And if that makes him a villain, well …

“Really, it’s just trying to keep the same mindset,” Conley said. “… I just go out there and play as hard as I can, and if it’s enough to win, I’m happy.”

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