New Orleans • After Mike Conley emerged from the visitors’ locker room at the Target Center on Friday night after the Utah Jazz’s overtime victory over Rudy Gobert and the Wolves, he leaned up against a wall in the tunnel, and asked one question of the assembled reporters:
“Am I a meme yet?”
With the Jazz up two late in regulation, Wolves point guard D’Angelo Russell decided to iso the longtime veteran, then busted out a wicked behind-the-back crossover that enabled him to stop on a dime, while Conley slipped and tumbled into the paint. Russell then buried the shot, ultimately sending the game into OT.
Conley was able to laugh afterward about it, mournfully lamenting, “Oh, it’s a wrap, it’s a wrap,” when told the highlight had been tweeted out by a number of prominent NBA social media accounts. Then he shrugged it off: “I tried to go my whole career without having one of those, but it happens to the best of us.”
Thing is, just a few minutes later, pretty much nobody was thinking about the point guard’s embarrassment, what with him having made what was arguably the biggest play in the contest’s 53 minutes of action. No, he didn’t get Russell back on a crossover of his own; and no, he didn’t bury what proved to be the game-winning shot …
He committed a foul.
Specifically, with a blown coverage allowing Gobert to make a free run to the rim for what would have been a game-tying dunk, the point guard saw the play unfold, flew in from the weak side, hammered his former teammate mid-air, and instead made him go to the line for two free throws — both of which he missed.
“Yeah, winning plays come in a variety of packages throughout an NBA season, and that foul was probably the play that won us the game — not letting Gobert just dunk the ball,” said Jazz coach Will Hardy. “Mike put his body on the line, scared us all for a second there the way he fell. But you know, that’s Mike. He wants to win.”
Conley noted that after going just 4 of 15 from the field that night, so he was simply trying to find any means of influencing the outcome.
“It’s one of them games that I didn’t shoot the ball well, so you just got to find other ways to hopefully win the game,” he said. “And I was fortunate to be able to make a few of those plays.”
That’s been the theme for the Jazz as a whole to this point, and one that they carried into Sunday’s matchup with Zion Williamson and the Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
This one saw them stun the Pelicans by going up 17, then falling behind after going stagnant and surrendering a 22-3 run, only to eventually prevail 122-121 in overtime, as Kelly Olynyk dropped in a game-winning floater with 3.1 seconds to go.
Even amid all the outside talk of tanking, all the external drooling over the possibility of landing Victor Wembanyama, the entire roster is with the program: Play hard, make adjustments, do the little things so intrinsically necessary to getting an advantage against opponents that might have more top-end talent.
All of those things were on display both in the season-opening win over the Nuggets, then again Friday vs. the Timberwolves.
They allowed 41 first-quarter points to Minnesota. So they needed to figure out why, plus what adjustments to make.
Hardy pointed out that in that first period, the initial pick-up points on the ball were too low, and that the Jazz were going over almost every single screen, the combination of which “just turned them loose downhill towards our bigs.” So, the counter: extend the defense out on the court, mix up going under and over screens, throw in some extra switching, too, just to confuse the Wolves about what they’d be facing.
As for some other little things …
• They’re finding balance in the scoring department: “We had six guys in double figures again tonight,” Hardy said Friday. (Jordan Clarkson 29, Lauri Markkanen 24, Olynyk 21, Malik Beasley 15, Conley 12, Collin Sexton 11.)
• The scoring is coming because everyone is embracing ball movement — with 39 assists on 49 baskets: “I’m rubbing off on all of ‘em! Honestly,” Conley laughed. (Conley 11, Clarkson six, Markkanen five, Sexton and Jarred Vanderbilt with four apiece.)
• Despite rookie center Walker Kessler being their only real rim-protector, they’re getting after it defensively: “Another night where [because of] our activity on the defensive end, we forced 20 turnovers again,” said Hardy.
And then there are the intangibles, the things that don’t show up in the box score.
There’s no stat for effort and energy, for sheer competitiveness, but the Jazz have made it a priority.
“We’ve got to keep the intensity every night,” Markkanen said simply. “Of course you’re not going to win every night, but you can play really hard and out-compete the other team.”
“Just coming in and working and playing hard,” agreed Clarkson. “Whatever the result is, I know all these are lacing ‘em up and going out and playing hard.”
“We didn’t necessarily expect it to come in wins, but we knew that with the team that we have and how we’ve had our training camp and preseason, that we’re building a culture of hard work, building a culture of being unselfish and making plays for one another,” concluded Conley. “And if we win, we win. But, you know, it’s working out for us right now early in the season.”
He’s a good example of that. He noted that after fouling Gobert, then cartwheeling down toward the court, it “felt like I was in the air for 10 seconds,” and he was just trying to brace himself, and “just prayed that nothing bad would happen.”
Nothing bad happened. Some good did, though, as Gobert missed the free throws, then Markkanen clinched the game on the other end with another bucket.
Effort and want-to and little things aren’t always going to be enough some nights, the Jazz know. As Hardy put it, “We are perfectly imperfect at times.”
It almost wasn’t enough Sunday.
The offense dried up in the fourth quarter, where they went too iso-heavy and shot just 7 for 24. CJ McCollum went supernova and was practically unstoppable against any defender.
But the Jazz hung in there in a variety of ways.
Clarkson (20 points, six assists) tracked down Williamson for a block of a breakaway dunk try, then later hit a crucial off-the-bounce 3. Markkanen (31 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, two assists) eschewed settling for a 3, put the ball on the floor and drove left, and earned a pair of key late free throws. And Olynyk (20 points, five assists) got the ball on the final possession in OT with multiple options to distribute, then ultimately took it himself down the middle of the lane for the winning floater.
“We have guys making that extra effort every game,” Markkanen said Sunday. “We talked about putting Gobert on the free-throw line in Minnesota — that hard foul that Mike took at the end of overtime. … Those are the small plays [we emphasize]. And obviously J.C. made a great hustle play [tonight]. We’re gonna need those. We needed every single one of those today.”
After each of the first two games, various team members have said, “It’s just one game.” And now that they’re 3-0?
“It’s been three games now, but if you want to be good, you have to make it four, and if you want to be great, you have to make it five,” Olynyk added. “That’s what it’s about for us right now — just getting on to the next one, and putting those three in the back. Learn from ’em, grow from ’em, and come out better the next game.”
All of them are still maintaining the attitude that they’re still being overlooked. What exactly, though, are the critics overlooking?
Both Hardy and Conley were thoughtful about the question.
“I mean, if you look at our roster, we probably have eight or nine guys that would play for any team in the NBA, be in the rotation. I think they’re missing the fact that the collection, the sum can be greater than the individual parts, if that make sense — the way they fit together, the way they play together,” the coach said. “… I really think that sometimes people look at just the individuals, and stack up individuals against individuals and they miss how a team fits together.”
His point guard was more succinct.
“Honestly, we are who we are. And we’re a bunch of guys who have a lot to prove, top to bottom. A team that’s hungry, a team that’s playing hard,” Conley said. “And we’re not listening to whatever it is they expect us to be.”