Chicago • Between a hamstring strain in February, some ensuing load management on back-to-backs, and hamstring tightness in late April/early May, Mike Conley missed 21 of the Utah Jazz’s 72 regular-season games last year.
Another hamstring injury kept him out of five of the team’s six second-round round playoff games against the Clippers — and he was clearly limited in the sixth, as well.
That’s why a new addition to the team’s injury report issued Friday night following a practice in the Windy City was so eyebrow-raising: “OUT - Mike Conley - Right Knee Injury Maintenance.”
Here we go.
That status, for the record, was less a reactive designation and more of a preventative one. Which is to say that, on the first night of the Jazz’s first set of back-to-back games in the 2021-22 campaign, Conley simply was held out.
“I rarely played Mike in back-to-backs last year, and that was a decision that we came to collectively,” coach Quin Snyder noted in his pregame meeting with the media. “… It’s more of a holistic decision, and one that we think is the best for our team and for Mike. I think, given the choice, he’d try to play every back-to-back. But I’m not gonna let him do that.”
In retrospect, the move was perhaps telegraphed by several postgame responses from the team following their preceding blowout victory in Houston.
With no Jazz player on the court that night against the Rockets for more than Joe Ingles’ 26 minutes, 2 seconds, they were subsequently asked if getting an opportunity to sit guys down early ahead of the coming B2B against the Bulls on Saturday and Bucks on Sunday was on their minds.
“For sure,” Ingles replied. “I mean, we’re an older team than a lot of teams.”
And it’s true — key rotation pieces (and soon-to-be ones) in their 30s include Rudy Gay (35), Ingles and Conley (both 34), and Bojan Bogdanovic and Hassan Whiteside (both 32).
In Houston, Snyder didn’t bother downplaying the rest component, either.
“It’s important — even psychologically,” he said. “They shouldn’t feel tired, and I don’t think we are, but sometimes that’s mental as much as anything.”
The bigger point, however, is that it can be physical, too.
Snyder pointed out that the way Conley plays — picking up the ball, guarding the ball, pushing the ball — inevitably leads to high exertion. Still, the point guard was not hurt going into the Rockets game, and apparently did not get hurt during it (even though he did put up a quiet six points and four assists, while shooting 2 of 7 from the field).
No, this “Right Knee Injury Maintenance” was effectively a concise euphemism for “Look, we’re trying to make sure everyone’s available in the playoffs, OK?”
Which is to say, there will be more of this to come for Conley, and probably for some of his teammates, too.
“We’re health-conscious for all our guys,” Snyder said. “… So we’ll look for opportunities to take advantage of our depth. And this is a chance.”
Saturday night certainly was a chance. Utah’s ensuing 107-99 defeat, however, was a tangible and immediate reminder that such chances do not come without potential consequences.
With Conley on the shelf, the Jazz went through prolonged bouts of ineffectual play, particularly on the offensive side. The de facto lead ball-handlers all struggled to some degree, with Donovan Mitchell accounting for six of Utah’s 20 turnovers, while Jordan Clarkson and Ingles contributed four apiece. Rookie Jared Butler struggled in a slightly expanded role, and even two-way point guard Trent Forrest was pretty nondescript in a brief appearance intended to stabilize things.
“Tonight, we were just reckless with the ball. Mental mistakes played into a lot of it,” Mitchell said afterward. “When we got into our offense, it looked good, it looked fluid. But the biggest thing is just playing through the pressure — physical pressure. We’ll bounce back and we’ll fix it.”
Could well be. After all, as Snyder noted, “This isn’t the first time we’ve played [without Conley].” Still, there’s a domino effect of slight dysfunction that occurs as a result of him sitting out, beginning with Mitchell playing point guard for 36 or so minutes, moving on to Ingles going from a bench role to the first five, to Clarkson checking in earlier than is typical, and so on and so forth.
“We did a lot of things wrong with our execution,” said Mitchell.
“Mike settles us,” Snyder added, simply. “… [Without him], your margin for error is much less.”
That margin will be something the Jazz have to navigate as the season progresses, and as various players normally part of the rotation are subject to euphemistic “injury” designations.
And it’s probably at its most apparent — as it was in Chicago — with Conley.
“We miss Mike,” Snyder said.