Mike Conley proves clutch in Utah Jazz’s win, and could prove more available as the season winds down

Despite a rough start in Houston, the point guard’s 12 points in the final 5:09 were absolutely huge. Meanwhile, he says the plan is for the team to start ramping up his minutes for the stretch run.

February was a rough month statistically for Mike Conley.

And the first game of March was looking pretty bad there for awhile, too.

Of course, we know how it ended. The veteran point guard played a huge role down the stretch Wednesday night in the Utah Jazz’s harder-than-expected victory in Houston — burying what should have been the game-winner with seconds to go in the fourth quarter (if not for a botched foul on the ensuing sequence), then racking up nine of the team’s 15 points in overtime, including two huge, momentum-shifting 3-pointers.

“The guys have trust in me to make those plays down the stretch,” Conley said afterward. “It felt good to be able to deliver and to be there for them.”

Probably felt good to leave behind a month’s worth of subpar production, too.

There’s no getting around it — February was a struggle for Conley. The 11.8 points per game he averaged over the month was his lowest scoring output by a good two ppg. His 35.0 FG% was by his worst, as was his 31.0 3P%. The 5.1 assists per game marked his second-lowest output (trailing only the small sample size 3.6 per game in five October matchups). The lowest plus/minus average he put up in any month was 4.8 in January; in February, he was at 0.1.

He wound up averaging just 26.5 minutes per game in February — down a full three minutes from January. Mostly, he looked physically spent, after the rigors of a hellacious January, and then having to carry an additional load with Donovan Mitchell missing games due to a concussion.

“I didn’t feel like Mike was fatigued before the All-Star break — I thought he was emotionally drained,” coach Quin Snyder noted pregame Wednesday. “And that was the thing that I was most aware of during the stretch that Donovan was out.”

The Rockets contest looked like it was shaping up to be another difficult one.

While his ball-handling and distribution were on-point (eight assists vs. just one turnover), the shot was once again not falling. He was 0 for 3 at halftime. He didn’t get his first basket until the 9:08 mark of the third quarter. And in the first 47 minutes, 51.7 seconds of play, he was 1 for 7 from the field and 1 of 2 at the free-throw line.

And then …

Mitchell ran a play designed to get him a look in isolation, but which featured counters to how the defense played, in the form of Rudy Gobert at the rim and Conley in the corner.

“Pick your poison,” Mitchell said simply.

He drove, drew the help defender, stumbled, and as he went to the ground, managed to flip the ball to his backcourt mate, who sank the go-ahead 3 with 8.3 seconds left in regulation.

In OT, Conley buried back-to-back triples that turned a one-point deficit into a 129-124 lead, then made 3 of 4 free throws in the closing seconds.

“Obviously, shots weren’t falling for me, personally, throughout the whole game. I just got out of the flow a little bit,” he said. “But I got two good opportunities there late in moments that I’m really kind of accustomed to being involved in.”

Asked about his point guard’s ability to come through in the clutch after having a poor performance prior to that, the coach took minor issue with the premise of the question.

“Everybody’s got confidence [in him]. I know I’m not thinking he’s having a bad night. I watch him shoot, I think it’s going in,” Snyder said. “And that’s what his teammates feel, as well.”

Coley’s got confidence in himself, too — including his ability to play more.

Just ahead of the All-Star break, he admitted to reporters that it would provide a well-timed opportunity to recharge. He noted that he and wife Mary would be leaving the kids with their grandparents in order to take their first bona-fide vacation in six years.

And now …

Another big number for Conley in Houston was 33:57 — the amount of time he spent on the court.

Of the 55 games he’s played in this season, he’s eclipsed the 30-minute mark in just 21 of them, as the team has continued to largely restrict his game time as part of an ongoing injury management plan. Given his recent history of knee and soft-tissue injuries — including one that hampered him down the stretch last season and into the playoffs — there is hope that minutes limits and holding him out of one end of back-to-backs will get him across the finish line this time.

Conley told Jazz beat writers attending the team’s morning shootaround Wednesday that those limitations might soon be ended.

The Jazz have four sets of back-to-back games remaining this season — this coming Sunday and Monday in Oklahoma City and Dallas; March 11 and 12 at San Antonio and in SLC vs. the Kings; March 20-21 in New York vs. the Knicks and Nets; and April 5-6 at home against the Grizzlies and Thunder.

Snyder, in discussing the plan for Conley’s minutes, noted, “In Mike’s case, it’s been an ongoing and subjective thing, and that’s really important.”

But, he elaborated pregame, Conley’s insistence that he can do more and push a bit harder hold weight with him.

“I trust Mike — if he told me to play him 40 minutes, I might not agree with him there,” Snyder said. “But Mike’s always been a guy that, when he does talk to you, it’s well thought out. He’s telling you how he really feels, so you’ve got to honor that.

“… So I’m playing him 22 minutes tonight!” the coach added facetiously. “He’s got a minutes restriction! Just to make a point!”