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PORTLAND — Mike Conley sat in the Moda Center visiting locker room, earbuds in, bobbing his head to a beat as he studiedly watched the Portland scouting report.
There was confidence. There was a bit of swagger. It was like Conley knew what was coming.
“I think it's just time for me to get back to doing what I do, and I'm excited for it,” Conley said before the Jazz took the court.
Conley returned to the Utah Jazz starting lineup on Saturday in Portland. And he looked like, well, Mike Conley.
And no, not the Conley that got off to a slightly (but, at times, overstated) disappointing start in his first season in Utah; the Conley that was one of the league’s best floor generals for the better part of a decade.
In the first quarter of Utah's 124-107 loss to Portland, he scored 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting. In the second, he added another 8 as he finished a masterful first half with 19 points.
In Conley’s 17 first-half minutes, the Jazz outscored the Blazers by 11 points — and still trailed by 10.
“Well, I think you saw Mike Conley,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And that's who he is. He's worked hard to get healthy. There's still certain things for him from a minute standpoint that are being worked through because we want him to continue to be healthy."
For nearly two months, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic have formed the best starting unit in the NBA.
They have blitzed opponents with an offensive rating just short of 120 on their way to outscoring opponents by 20.1 points per 100 possessions.
But on Saturday, the Jazz went back to Conley. Why? To do what they want, to accomplish what they think they can, they need Conley to play like his old self. The one that lifted Memphis time and time again.
“To me, he's like the quintessential point guard, almost like John Stockton where you know he can score but he can run the offense,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of Conley. “He can make 3s, just does a little bit of everything.”
And he did just that to start the game; driving inside for floaters and stepping back and drilling 3s. He controlled the game. The Jazz surrendered two big runs in the first half — a 12-0 run at the end of the first quarter and a 15-0 at the end of the second. Those came when Conley was sitting.
“I'm happy to be back out there and playing my role,” Conley said. "I feel like I'm in a good place. I've been in a good place for a while now, just waiting for the opportunity again. So I just feel like it's going to get better, I think the chemistry will get better with our team.”
Before the hamstring injury that sidelined him for 19 of 20 games, Conley was starting to feel comfortable in the Jazz offense. The acclimation process had been hard — harder than he had thought, but it was happening. Then the injury came and it was almost like he had to start over.
But he's getting that same feeling again. And has been for some time. And if the first half was any indication, Conley might just be back to playing like his Memphis days.
"Sometimes when you go through a lot, you get to a point and say, ‘Heck with it, I'm just gonna play.’”
And that's just what he did.