SALT LAKE CITY — When Mike Conley’s last-second 3-point try rattled out of the basket on Sept. 1, it was the first time in his career that a playoff elimination game came down to the final shot.
It was the fourth time in the veteran’s career that he had played in a Game 7, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, it would mark the fourth time in his career that he’d lost in said games.
Had Conley’s shot landed just a smidge differently, the narrative would be about his clutch heroics and how he pushed the Utah Jazz into the Western Conference semifinals. Alas, that’s not the case. For better or worse, Jazz fans will remember the series against the Denver Nuggets coming to an end on a missed game-winning shot from Mike Conley.
Conley spent 12 years with the Memphis Grizzlies before an offseason trade sent him to Utah last summer. The Grizzlies made the playoffs in eight of Conley’s 12 seasons with the team, but made it to the Western Conference Finals just once and were seemingly destined to always get bounced in the first or second round.
The first few months of Conley’s tenure with the Jazz were tumultuous, but he was starting to find himself within the team’s system when the NBA came to a halt on March 11. In the seven games before that night, Conley was averaging 16.1 points per game and shooting 45.8% from behind the 3-point line, a massive upgrade from where he started with the Jazz, shooting 35% from deep through the first two months of the season.
By Conley’s own admission, he’d had trouble acclimating to the Jazz’s defensive principles, had been trying to force too much on the offensive end and nagging injuries interrupted any kind of consistency through most of the year.
Donning a jersey in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando which read, “I am a man,” a message calling for racial equality, something extra seemed to click into place for Conley when games restarted in July.
“I’m just starting to really have fun with it,” he said, adding that the season hiatus gave him a chance to reflect on and study his role with Utah.
There was more flow to Conley’s game and he looked like the playmaking, seasoned decision maker that the Jazz had banked on when they traded for him last year.
The team knew that Conley would likely be missing time in the playoffs to be with his wife for the birth of their third child, and the day before the Jazz’s first round series began, he rushed home to meet his newborn son, Elijah, who arrived 11 days before his due date.
Whether it was the sight lines in the bubble, the decreased distractions, the joy of welcoming a new life into his family or just plain rhythm, Conley rejoined the Jazz in Game 3 and shot 60.7% from 3 in his first four playoff games with the Jazz.
In Game 7 though, Conley went just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc and missed the final 3-point heave that would have given the Jazz a win.
But the Jazz never went after Conley because of his clutch shot-making ability. In the last three Game 7s that Conley has played in, he has shot just 1-of-10 from deep. The Jazz went after Conley because of his playmaking ability and his deliberate and efficient approach to the game.
“This hurts more than any loss I’ve ever had,” he said after Game 7 against the Nuggets. “It hits different just because of the sacrifices that you made to be here.”
Committing to spending so much time away from their families, isolated to life within the NBA bubble, was a sacrifice that many players struggled with. Though Conley was able to leave and see his newborn son, he missed the birth and had to leave after spending just hours with his family in order to get back to Florida and have a chance to clear the NBA’s quarantine protocol in time to play in Game 3.
“It’s not easy to ask guys to be here in a bubble and doing something completely different than you’re used to,” Conley said. “Being away from your family, sacrificing a lot, you do that to win a championship, to advance, to put everything you have on the line, and to lose, literally by the ball rattling in and out, it comes down to that, that’s tough.”
With just seconds left on the clock and Conley leading the break, the Jazz didn’t have many options for that final shot. Additionally, none of the Jazz shooters had been hitting that night, with the team collectively shooting just 23.5% from 3-point range.
Had Bojan Bogdanovic been healthy, he would have been the clear choice for a final shot in a Game 7. Had Rudy Gobert been quicker on the outlet off Torrey Craig’s missed layup, the Jazz could have gone for a quick two on a fast break and sent the game into overtime. Had the Jazz played better in the previous two games, they would have never been in that situation at all.
Next season, Conley won’t have to learn a new system. He won’t have to rework his game after 12 years and eight postseasons of familiarity with another team. The hope is that Jazz will have more depth, more health and more time to prepare for next year’s playoffs and that after an up-and-down season, Conley, having finally found a rhythm with the Jazz, will have an entire season to fine tune things and to further ingrain himself within the team’s system in the final year of his contract.