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Years of preparation helped Mike Conley become the NBA’S HORSE champion

Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) lowers his shoulder as he drives on Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (5) during the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings NBA preseason basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.
Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) lowers his shoulder as he drives on Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (5) during the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings NBA preseason basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A general thought in the game of HORSE is that competitors don’t think much and just make up shots as they go, but as it turns out for Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley, he’s spent a great deal of time over the years perfecting his craft.

All of that “hard work” was “rewarded” on Thursday when he won the made-for-TV NBA HORSE Challenge aired on ESPN, defeating Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine in rather convincing fashion.

“That was one reason I wanted to be involved. I play HORSE every day, after every workout, and during the summer when there’s no social distancing and I have my whole crew of people in the gym with me, we’ll run two or three games right after we get done working out,” he told local reporters Friday in a Zoom video conference. “We get really, really creative. I saved a lot of that — I didn’t show too much. It’s a fun game to just let loose.”

Actually, his prior preparation meant he didn’t have to think too much about the shots he wanted to try during the competition, which saw him beat future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Tamika Catchings and retired five-time NBA All-Star Chauncey Billups before besting LaVine on his way to the title.

“I already had five or six go-to shots, and I knew that probably nobody was going to be able to use their off-hand like I would, so I would just use that to my advantage,” he said. “At any point I felt like I was getting pressured or pushed, I would just go right to my right hand and shoot a 3 or shoot whatever just to feel comfortable again. I felt good going into it and was excited to be a part of it.”

Another edge Conley had was the fact that he was the only one of the eight competitors in the field who played in an indoor gym. In his case, he’s at his home in Columbus, Ohio, whereas everyone else was shooting on outdoor courts and hoops at their homes. That meant he didn’t have to brave elements such as wind that some others had to deal with at times.

“It was a real advantage,” he said. “I didn’t know going in what everybody had or didn’t have. I just knew that I had a hoop and loved the game and wanted to be a part of it, but it definitely helped out being indoors.”

Although Conley may not have spent much time planning out his shots, he said having the competition helped him mentally as he is stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It helped a lot,” he said. “All of us guys have been looking for something to compete against and there’s only so many video games and things that we can play before we start to really go crazy. So to actually have competition within the sport that we love to play and a game that I know we all grew up playing, I know HORSE is very easy to play, but you can get real creative and just have a really good time doing it. Once I knew that it was for charity, too, it was an easy yes for me.”

Conley may now be the NBA’s HORSE champion, but he said from his own team, Bojan Bogdanovic could give him a run for his money, and Vince Carter is the best in the league he’s seen.

“Bojan Bogdanovic would be my pick to try to dethrone me because he’s got a lot of tricks, he’s a little tricky dude,” Conley said. “Obviously he can shoot way better than me so that would be a tough matchup. Outside of him, Vince Carter was a guy that played a few times with, and we used to workout after every practice and some of the shots he can do. … He would sit down at the opposite free-throw line and throw it with one arm to the other end basket and make it. He’s just super talented like that so he was a guy where I had my hands full.”