Where have you gone, Mike Conley? Where have you gone?
It’s a troubling question for the Jazz, but at least that one has a reasonable answer, an answer a doctor can explain. There’s another question, though, one more disturbing, more mysterious, made more inescapable by the first.
More on that second one in a minute.
It’s the most basic of basketball traditions to blame playoff losses — covertly, if not overtly — on the absence of the guys who couldn’t play. … Jazz nation turns its lonely eyes, Mike, to you. Woo, woo, woo. … And to look for hope in their return.
Even worse, that now elongated hole in the Jazz’s guard line has put added burden on Donovan Mitchell, himself hurting a bit with his lingering ankle injury, a ding that has not fully healed after two months.
But there’s a troubling truth here: Too many of Mitchell’s healthy teammates have bailed on him. If that’s too harsh, they’ve been far too inconsistent.
“It is what it is,” Mitchell said, regarding the load he is carrying.
Either way, that aforementioned hope evaporated quickly for the Jazz in Monday night’s Game 4, a game meant — with or without the hamstrung Conley, with or without Mitchell’s complete health — to go one way or the other, to lean Utah’s playoff series against the Clippers sharply in its favor, or to tie the thing up and turn all of it into a bandaged brawl.
“We weren’t connected,” Quin Snyder said. “We were trying to attack, but we weren’t putting ourselves in situations to have success. … I like the fact that we continued to compete.”
Competing is nowhere near enough.
Added up, the combined numbers on the board show that the Clips have outscored the Jazz in the last two games by a total of 40 points.
“They punched us in the face,” Mitchell said. “Twice.”
At this point, there’s no telling when Conley will be back, or to what degree Mitchell will continue to be burdened and hampered. When Mitchell said, in so many words, that landing when he goes airborne causes discomfort, that’s concerning. He said his condition is being “managed.” Conley has perpetually been listed as “questionable,” and that designation leaves those on the outside wholly in the fog, and those on the inside equally shorthanded and frustrated.
And those circumstances, while overcome by the Jazz in the first two home games, have emerged as a serious problem as the series has lurched forward, the Clippers jamming Jazz shooters, rupturing their spacing, building a wall around Mitchell, forcing him to take tough shots, interfering with the team’s ball movement, and thwarting both its effectiveness and efficiency on attack.
An All-Star quarterback would be helpful right about now.
Where have you gone, Mike Conley? Indeed.
But there’s the other where-have-you-gone question:
Where’s everybody else gone, beyond Mitchell?
Where’s the lift from the others?
Rudy Gobert? (Foul trouble, 11 points, eight rebounds). Bojan Bogdanovic? (18 points, many of them coming late, after the game was decided). Jordan Clarkson? (Eight points on 3-for-12 shooting, minus-16 plus-minus). Royce O’Neale? (Eight points, minus-12). Derrick Favors? (Two points, four rebounds, minus-14). Georges Niang? (Zero points, two rebounds, minus-13).
Where’s the effective components of a team that merged together so seamlessly for so much of the regular season, as well as in the series’ first two games?
Joe Ingles did get 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting. So, there was that.
Mitchell (37 points, five assists, five boards) appears to be doing everything he can to keep the Jazz afloat. But he cannot beat the Clippers by himself. It’s more than a ridiculous ask for him to wash out the combined efforts of Kawhi Leonard (31 points) and Paul George (31 points), two of basketball’s premier talents, especially the two-time NBA Finals MVP Leonard, let alone the whole freaking Clippers team.
Here’s another of basketball’s basics: Other than Michael Jordan, when a single player is forced into going one-on-five, the one loses. Obvious, yes, but that conspicuousness only emboldens its veracity.
Don’t the Jazz know it. They’d better know it.
It’s a numbers game, and the numbers don’t favor the Jazz.
“We knew what was coming,” Mitchell said. “We shot ourselves in the foot.”
In Game 4, the Clippers played enough of the kind of forceful defense necessary to knock off the timing of the Jazz and to rupture their spacing and thereby, their accuracy. But the Jazz were complicit in their own failings.
Snyder called the Jazz offense in the first quarter “dysfunctional.”
It remained that way throughout the first half, when the Jazz trailed by as many as 29 points.
Sound familiar? Many of the same difficulties, at both ends, that plagued the Jazz in the third game plagued them in the fourth. This time, they fell behind early, turning the ball over too many times and starting the game oh-for-five from three.
The very thing that Gobert said was the Jazz’s most pressing need to fix from Game 3 to Game 4: “Spacing.”
That fix started to come in the second half, but not in time to save the Jazz.
Gobert notably added that the other area of specific need for correction was … “a little bit of everything.”
In that initial half, the Jazz got a whole lot of nothing.
Dysfunction? How about self-destruction?
Not having Conley killed the Jazz. That’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation.
“It’s tougher with Mike out,” Mitchell said.
Without Conley, only Mitchell could beat his man off the dribble. Nobody else was nimble with the ball. Nobody else made smart and timely decisions. Nobody else put the rock where it needed to be against the Clippers’ tight defense. Nobody else could share the play-making duties with Mitchell.
And the Jazz couldn’t get out frequently enough in transition for easy baskets. They found nothing easy. They were outscored in fast-break points, 12-zip. As for the rebounding necessary to facilitate running, the Jazz were outscored in second-chance points, 18-1.
Both the ball movement and the distribution crashed, and Conley’s eight-plus assists per playoff game were sorely missed, all of it pushing the question that hovers so heavily now.
When will Conley get back?
The other question — Where are the others? — started to answer itself in the positive through the third and fourth quarters, as the Jazz won the second half.
“If we can continue what we did in the second half,” said Mitchell, " … I think we’ll be in good shape.”
But … the poor start — the early dysfunction — crushed them.
It’s easier to get around to playing loose and lucid when the score is as lopsided as it was through too much of this game.
It may be pitiable to find hope of a different kind in a possible tweaked knee to Leonard, as the Clippers star collided with Ingles and hopped gingerly around late in the game. But when he was asked about it afterward, he shrugged with disgust and said he’d be, “aight.”
Let the Clippers find answers to their questions.
If the Jazz don’t find answers to their own — foremost among them, the return of You Know Who, but also the will and the coordination to fight back not just for one half, but for a whole game, for two games — their hurt will run far past Mike Conley’s hammy. Not even the comforting confines of Vivint Arena will heal or rescue them then.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.