Portland, Ore. • While the Utah Jazz’s early-season success has been a fun story around the league, there has been widespread speculation that the team is just one Mike Conley injury or trade away from total ruination.
Well, about that …
At the 10:30 mark of the third quarter Saturday night at the Moda Center, the 16th-year point guard was chasing Blazers star Damian Lillard around a screen when his left leg buckled and he collapsed to the court. After sitting on the hardwood for a few minutes as trainers did an initial assessment, he was eventually helped to the back, and was subsequently ruled out from returning as he underwent an MRI.
Still, the evening did not devolve into abject calamity.
First off, the point guard approached Jazz PR postgame with an offer to speak to reporters and provide an update on his status. He walked across the small and crowded locker room with a pronounced limp, though he attributed that to prolonged icing of his left knee.
Asked how he was feeling, Conley was blunt but also optimistic.
“Sore. Probably about as good as I could feel from looking at [what happened],” he said. “We’re just waiting. Had an MRI already, so waiting to get the info back. But everything seems to be good.”
After the MRI was performed at the arena, the scans were sent to team doctors back in Salt Lake City, where an assessment was made Sunday. The determination? Conley avoided serious injury but will still miss some time.
Despite a report that Conley had suffered a knee sprain and would miss at least two weeks, team sources revealed Sunday evening that such a diagnosis and timeline are not necessarily correct. The MRI cleared Conley of any major structural damage; beyond that, he will miss Monday’s game against the Clippers, then will be re-evaluated by team doctors upon the Jazz’s return to Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
He will then be re-evaluated on a daily basis thereafter, potentially clearing the way for him to make a return to action sooner.
Asked Saturday exactly what happened on the play, Conley conceded he wasn’t sure.
He was guarding Lillard, went over a screen to prevent a 3-point attempt, and suddenly, “I went to take a step, and for whatever reason, on that step, my leg completely locked out and all my weight went straight back into my knee. Initially I didn’t know what happened. It probably felt worse at the time than it’s gonna turn out to be.”
As he sat there, his knee in pain, he began going through a mental checklist of potential injuries, and ruled a few out based on what he was feeling. Meanwhile, team trainers performed some brief ligament tests, and “Early signs seem like they all were checking out.”
Meanwhile, Conley made it back to the Jazz’s locker room just in time to watch the final two minutes of the game, which also turned out not to be an inherent disaster. In those waning moments, he saw several teammates step up in his absence to secure a 118-113 victory that put Utah back in first place in the Western Conference.
Conley & Co. are hopeful that he won’t miss any extended time, given how crucial he is to the team. Still, the likes of Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, and even backup point guard Talen Horton-Tucker showed that, on this night at least, Conley being out of action need not mean impending catastrophe.
For starters, the 21-year-old Horton-Tucker, who’s had considerable ups and downs as Conley’s primary backup this season, played 31:32 Saturday with the point guard sidelined, and totaled eight points, five rebounds, and two assists, while also helping limit Lillard to 2-for-14 shooting before the Portland fixture also departed early, on account of right calf tightness.
“It’s just the general poise that he played with — on the road, second night of a back-to-back, their team’s making a run, their crowd’s going crazy, and he didn’t flinch,” coach Will Hardy said of THT’s contribution.
“His presence, his size, his length, everything he did late in the game for us was really big, really propelled us to the win,” added Clarkson.
Beasley and Clarkson, meanwhile, provided one clutch bucket after another.
Though star forward Lauri Markkanen scored Utah’s first nine points of the game, his night was actually a bit subdued — as much as a 23-point, 10-rebound performance can be — relative to his incendiary Friday-night performance anyway.
Beasley, however, was incendiary once again, burying six 3-pointers en route to posting a season-high point total for a second straight night, this time totaling 29. And Clarkson overcame a rough start that saw him miss his first six shots, as he hit 10 of his final 17 attempts, en route to 28 points and four assists.
“Those guys have shown an affinity for big moments. Previously I’ve called Beas a showman, and I believe that is still true. And Jordan has his own flair that he plays with,” said Hardy. “Those guys have played in a lot of big games, and they’re not intimidated at all by those types of moments because they’ve been in a lot of them.”
Indeed, 15 of Clarkson’s 28 points came in the fourth quarter alone, including a stretch of eight straight.
“Jordan wanted the ball,” Hardy added, simply. “… Portland was switching at the time, and we felt like if we gave Jordan proper spacing, that he could make some good decisions and have the ability to attack for himself or for a teammate.”
Beasley said he was in Clarkson’s ear, encouraging him to keep firing away despite the growing stack of early misses.
“I continued to tell J.C., ‘Look, you’re gonna make the next five shots,’” he said. “In the first half, he wasn’t hitting, so I told him, ‘You’re gonna make the next five — we’re gonna need you to just keep rolling.’ And he did that.”
Clarkson, asked about their interaction, confirmed the basic details: “He was telling me the whole time, ‘Next one will go in, next one’s gonna go in,’ just so I don’t lose confidence.”
Wait … does Clarkson ever actually lose confidence?!
“Ummm … nah!” he admitted, eliciting laughter. “I mean … nah, nah, nah!”
Whether the other Jazz players can adequately replace Conley’s contributions beyond the final two quarters of Saturday’s game remains to be seen.
The process of proving they can begins with Monday’s matchup against the Clippers in Los Angeles.
As Conley was recounting his injury, he noted, “It was a very uncomfortable feeling, but hopefully it’ll be fine.” That’s certainly a sentiment a Jazz team now missing its tone-setting starting point guard for a bit can identify with.