Cleveland • Too injury-prone. Too unavailable. Too expensive. Too old. Too small.
Mike Conley’s first two seasons with the Utah Jazz frequently saw him maligned as too this or too that by a segment of an impatient fan base whose vision of his positive attributes was sometimes obfuscated whenever some unfortunate knee or hamstring malady kept him out for a stretch of games.
The past two games of the Utah Jazz’s season, though, have been about as perfect a microcosm, as pure a distillation of why the All-Star point guard remains too indispensable, too unappreciated.
Friday night at Vivint Arena against the Celtics, while both teams traded baskets almost as easily as they breathed oxygen, Conley was perhaps the most purely efficient scorer in the game, drilling 9 of 13 shots overall, and going an improbably, ridiculously, perfect 7 of 7 from beyond the arc.
On Sunday afternoon at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse against the Cavs, he gave a master class on clutch defense, not so much on account of the four steals he racked up, but, rather, because of the way he played the final 17.9 seconds, and how he conceded not one single thing to dynamic guard Darius Garland in that pivotal stretch of a one-point game.
The Cavs inbounded to Ricky Rubio, who quickly handed it off to Garland, who at that point had already amassed 31 points and five made 3s. As Garland navigated around a Lauri Markkanen screen, Conley slipped right over the top of it, yielding no separation. Garland then charged hard right, trying to get a step’s advantage on Conley toward the hoop, but he could not. A quick spin move left into the paint … Conley was right there. Garland fired the ball to Markkanen, retreated beyond the 3-point line, and took the ball again. Conley forced him further back. Then came the isolation. One crossover — no bite. Another crossover — still nothing. And finally, with no alternatives remaining and the clock winding down, Garland was forced to simply fire away from 28 feet.
Initially, Conley was very matter-of-fact, quite clinically diagnostic about it all.
“[Garland is] tough, obviously. That last possession, I knew it was going to come to him,” he said. “I knew there was going to be some kind of slip and [Garland] getting downhill to his right. We played it right, got him to turn his back and kind of pick up the ball. I knew when he gave it up, he was going to come back and get it. Just trying to chase him and apply pressure as much as possible. I saw time running down and tried to stay up as high as I could, knowing that at some point they have to shoot the ball, and however deep he is, I just want to be there to contest it. And luckily he missed it.”
The rest of the Jazz, however, were not quite so blasé about it all.
“He did a great job,” said coach Quin Snyder. “Even when [Garland] got deep, I thought Mike really didn’t get pushed off his spot. [Garland’s] got the ability to bump you a little bit and shoot the step-back or the floater. Just really, really good defense, one-on-one defense — a big play by Mike.”
Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, conceded that even though he had PTSD flashbacks to recent last-second losses to Memphis and New Orleans as Garland’s shot rose through the air, he knew Conley had done everything in his power to make it a difficult possession and a tough look.
“Him getting over that screen and being able to just compete,” said Mitchell, “… sometimes it’s just a matter of will, more than anything else.”
Eventually, Conley was able to eschew the circumspect recounting and to smile a bit about his role in preserving the Jazz’s 16th victory of the season.
He noted that he told Garland how much he’d enjoyed their matchup throughout the game, how “it was like playing against myself there for a little bit, [with] some of the stuff he was doing.”
Conley also exhaled about holding up defensively for that full 17.9 seconds — something of an eternity in professional basketball.
“It’s a long time. It’s a lot of time in an NBA game,” he noted.
That said, the 34-year-old surely had to feel a surge of youth from successfully fending off his 21-year-old foe, right?
“Yeah, uh, it made me feel older,” he laughed, wryly.
The Celtics game made him feel older, too, albeit in a good way.
When he first entered the league, he was very much a guy whose game was predicated upon an ability to beat guys off the dribble and to get to the rim.
Which is still an exceedingly valuable skill to have. But he wasn’t much of a shooter at all. And he quickly realized that needed to change. Friday night’s 7-for-7 performance from 3 was the ultimate reminder of how far he’s come.
“As the game started to transition to more outside shooting and more 3-point opportunities, I just, summer after summer, I started thinking, ‘Hey, I gotta adapt or die in this league,’” Conley said. “So I really worked on it very hard, and I’m on a team that creates a lot of space and opportunities for us, and I get a lot of good looks. I’ve developed it enough to where I feel like I can knock it down.”
He admittedly did not see 7 of 7 coming.
Conley said that he actually did not have nearly enough attempts go in the hoop in the preceding shootaround, and that he certainly didn’t come into the game with any grandiose visions of lighting it up. For that matter, even as he was starting to lay waste to Boston’s defense, he still didn’t have a good feel for just how in the zone he was.
“I turned the ball over a couple of times and that’s all I was thinking about. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I keep turning it over,’” he said. “And then I’d come down, make a 3, make a 3, but my mind was still mad about turnovers. I wasn’t thinking about the 3s as much. And somebody came up to me and said, ‘You’re hot hot. Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!’ So I was like, ‘Alright.’”
Eventually, his mind’s eye recognized the groove he was in, even if his actual eyes sometimes couldn’t actually locate the hoop.
“A couple of ‘em you make where you can’t even see the rim, somebody’s in your face, and it’s a special kind of night,” Conley said. “… Yeah, on a few of ‘em I wanted to — as soon as I shot it — turn around and start running [down the court] and not look at it go in. I knew it was going in, but I just held my pose and made sure. Yeah, I just felt good about it.”
Not too good, though.