How Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley dominated against Toronto — while only taking four shots

Veteran point guard has been making it a point to pass more in an effort to get his teammates rolling, but is limiting the team’s most efficient 3-point shooter the best move?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (11) goes for the ball along with Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43), in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

As Bojan Bogdanovic was walking through the door separating the Utah Jazz’s locker room and the media interview room at Vivint Arena on Tuesday night following the team’s decimation of the short-handed Sixers, an unidentified voice called after him: “Say good things about me!”

When a reporter immediately asked Bogdanovic who the faux-needy teammate was, he grinned and revealed, “That was Mike.” Then, when the interview began in earnest and the sharpshooting forward was queried about what had made his and Utah’s offense so much improved that night, he completed the bit:

“Mike was awesome!” Bogdanovic replied immediately and animatedly, eliciting laughter.

All jokes aside, Mike Conley’s importance to what the Jazz do has long since stopped being a point of contention.

Of course, these days, the debate is more about how exactly Conley is most useful to the Jazz.

His ball-handling, his defense, and his ability to run the offense have never been in question. However, in recent games, the veteran who has been Utah’s best 3-point shooter this year by percentage has adopted a noticeably more secondary on-court persona.

In effect, he’s gone from a shooting threat to a more traditional, distribution-oriented point guard.

In his first eight games this season, Conley had double-digit field-goal attempts in all but two; in his next five games, he was in single-digit attempts each time, averaging 7.5 shots per game. His first six games this season saw him assist between just two and five baskets per game; the subsequent seven have all seen him total between six and 11 assists.

He said it’s been a conscious decision with a simple rationale: The Jazz’s passing as a team has been a bit lackluster of late, so he’s making it a point to get it jump-started a bit.

“You know, really it’s [that] I’m trying to get the ball moving a lot of time,” Conley said. “Our team can get a little stagnant from [opponents’] switching. So I feel like any time I get in the paint, I can make a play. And I’ll make the right read most of the time — and if it’s for me to shoot, I’ll shoot, if it’s not, I’m going to get a guy open. That’s just what’s been happening the last couple of nights.”

He’s not wrong.

Heading into Thursday night’s game against visiting Toronto, the Jazz were averaging just 20.9 assists per game — the fourth-fewest in the league, and an 11.8% decrease from last season.

Asked about the Jazz’s ball movement, coach Quin Snyder responded simply: “They’ve got to do that.”

Meanwhile, his teammates recognize the sacrifice Conley is making and appreciate him for it.

“Mike can impact the game in so many ways — he doesn’t need to score to impact the game,” said Rudy Gobert. “He understands the game. And there’s going to be some games where he doesn’t score, but he gets everybody going. And he knows that. I have full confidence in Mike. I know that we really need him.”

Donovan Mitchell also appreciates the effort, but noted that the rest of the Jazz must step up their passing so that Conley doesn’t have to continue sacrificing his own shots.

“He is one of the most unselfish people I’ve met. … He’s trying his best to make sure we’re all [involved],” said Mitchell. “He’s taken that upon himself, and I respect that about him. But by the same token, I tell him ‘Shoot!’ You know, ‘Shoot the ball.’ It’s not a problem. It’s not one thing where it’s like, ‘Man, Mike’s not shooting. What are we going to do?’ He’s trying to do something that helps the team, he’s trying to help us by being unselfish. We all have to do a better job; we can’t rely on just Mike to go ahead and do it, because that’s a lot of pressure on him.”

They were better as a team in that regard in Thursday’s win over Toronto, registering 34 assists on 44 made baskets.

Conley had seven of those dimes, while scoring all of five points on just four shots himself. And yet, he posted a whopping +33 plus/minus — all of which prompted some allegedly-independent-but-curiously-consistent talking points from the Jazz in the postgame media session.

“Frankly, Mike Conley dominated the game. It says a lot about who he is as a player when he takes four shots and dominates the game,” said Snyder. “… I don’t pay a lot of attention to plus/minus — it can be deceiving — but 33 jumps out. Plus-33 is hard to do.”

“Mike shot four shots tonight but was +33 and dominated,” added Joe Ingles. “… [To] people on the outside, it looks like Mike didn’t do much, but he was dominating.”

“He shot four times, but he really controlled the game,” added Rudy Gay. “He’s our point guard, and he needs to do more of that. When he controls the game, we’re more detailed in what we’re doing.”

You get the point.

Meanwhile, as good a shooter as Conley is, Snyder pointed out that the Jazz are stocked with high-usage players capable of having big nights and filling up the box score, so they’re capable of compensating for him not scoring as much himself sometimes. Meanwhile, some of the sets the team runs simply mean that, as the initiator, when Conley moves the ball, he knows it may not make its way back to him in that possession. And that’s OK.

And yet, given his efficiency, Snyder points out that it would be a waste of Conley’s skills — and a detriment to the Jazz’s scheme — for him to adopt too many bystander tendencies.

“I want him to be aggressive,” Snyder said. “And he wants to be aggressive finding those situations depending on how he’s being played.”

For his part, after breaking a modest two-game skid of single-digit-scoring efforts by putting up 13 points and seven assists against the Sixers, Conley said he’s not worried at all about stats — his own or the team’s.

He was just happy that Gobert was getting the ball thrown over the top of Philly’s small-ball defense and culminating possessions with emphatic dunks. He was pleased that Bogdanovic was letting it fly, to the tune of a game-high 27 points.

“I thought we played a lot better. I thought the ball moved a lot more, like we’re used to seeing — you know, multiple passes, multiple drives,” Conley said. “… That’s the solid basketball we’re trying to play and we want to play. As a point guard, it’s my job to try and make that happen, to make that ship run smooth. So for me, if it’s sacrificing a few shots here and there to make sure that ball is moving, then I’ll do that.”

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