Mike Conley still can’t quite believe the way the basketball stars have aligned.
After spending 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, the veteran Utah Jazz guard is still adjusting to the fact that his new team is facing his old team in an emotional first-round playoff series. But after scoring 27 points, dishing out eight assists and grabbing six rebounds in Utah’s 121-111 Game 3 win over the Grizzlies on Saturday night, Conley had to crack a small smile while describing what it’s like playing against his old team and the new face of his former organization, Ja Morant.
“It’s amazing to be playing against a guy like Ja, first off,” Conley said, after helping the Grizzlies secure a 2-1 series lead. “Just seeing a guy that’s so talented, he’s a young superstar in the league, wearing the jersey that I’m so used to wearing. Getting the cheers from the crowd that I’m so used to hearing. It’s surreal. It’s like full circle. You never thought that it would be this way. I never did at least. It’s like sometimes you live long enough to become the villain and I’ve become that for the Memphis Grizzlies now. Just got to take that in stride, continue to do what I do and have fun with that, have fun with the game.”
After becoming the face of the Grizzlies organization over the last decade alongside former Memphis big man Marc Gasol, Conley shined in the first playoff game against his old team in his 14-year career — hitting big shots and playing the type of solid defense that helped the Jazz close the game on 14-2 run in the final 4:15 of regulation.
Morant finished with 28 points and seven assists.
“Mike was terrific, man,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. “On both ends of the floor. He was Mike Conley. And he always has been for us all year and he’s taken it to an even ‘nother level. And I feel like when you have a guy like that who can handle the ball, who can control the game as well, it makes my life and my job easier. So when I get certain shots it’s because he sees things, he’s communicating that with me or he’s putting me in positions to go ahead and score and make plays, too. A lot of that, too, is Mike Conley being here. He’s big time.”
After struggling to find a consistent rhythm throughout much of his first season in Utah, Conley appears to have found the groove that helped make the Jazz the number one team in the Western Conference all season. He went 7-of-10 from the 3-point line, tying his career-high for 3-pointers in a game.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s just locked in,” Mitchell said. “He just has a different look. And that’s one of the things that I saw from him in the bubble and I’ve seen it at an even higher level now. He understands it. He loves — he played for Memphis, what? 13 years. At the end of the day, there’s still love. You can see it. And there’s also love in competing against them. And I think it is impressive because it’s easy to be distracted …
“I remember his first game back here, mentally he was all over the place. And rightfully so. It’s an emotional moment for him, but to be back here competing against Ja, who’s like — you got the OG and then you got the young guy. I think that’s pretty dope. It’s a dope story, but for him he’s competing. He’s doing his thing on both ends of the floor. And both of these guys are taking the challenge head on. That’s why I love Mike, that’s why we love Mike.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder echoed the chorus of plaudits for Conley by noting that not only did his team start rebounding better in the final minutes, it rode the wave that Conley helped set from them in slowing down Morant.
“One of the things we’ve talked about is trying to get better defensively as the game goes on,” Snyder said. “Obviously, Ja is such a terrific player. I thought really as much as anything, Mike Conley, he was unbelievable. Just his quickness, his presence on the ball.”
As strange as it remains for Conley to go against some of his former teammates, the 33-year-old is trying to enjoy the experience of going up against the new face of the team he led for so long.
“When we started to compete, all that stuff kind of goes out the window,” Conley said. “I thought I’d be more wrapped up in it, at the same time I was just out there having fun and competing. Got into the flow of the game early, saw a couple shots go in, really found a good rhythm … it’s a great environment to play in, still one of my favorite places to play, so it was fun to be a part of it.”