Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz really miss Mike Conley.
Yes, that much was obvious as Utah entered Monday's game having lost four in a row without their starting point guard. But it was driven home, once again, against the Chicago Bulls.
As Utah mounted a comeback late in the fourth quarter, they committed two consecutive careless turnovers. Those two miscues turned a 4-point game quickly into a 10-point one, which effectively ended Utah's chances.
They were plays that may have gone differently with Conley in the game. As it was, though, the Jazz started off their six-game home stand with a 114-107 loss to the Bulls. It was Utah's fifth-straight loss, and the team fell to 12-11 on the season.
Kelly Olynyk committed the first turnover when he got his pocket picked as he made a move to the basket. Collin Sexton then compounded the mistake by committing a clear path foul, which led to a 4-point possession by the Bulls. Utah's next possession ended with Sexton dribbling the ball out of bounds, and the Bulls went down and got a layup on the other end.
It was a game that was well within reach with under four minutes left to play, and then suddenly not one minute later.
"It was a bad turnover by me; then it's a clear path and obviously it's two at the ball," Olynyk said. "Now it goes from four to eight, turn it over again, and now it's 10. Now you have a real climb."
A climb Utah couldn't make.
The Jazz haven't been blown out during their five-game losing streak — it kind of got away from them at Golden State — but games have been decided in the closing minutes. A better possession here and a made shot there and the Jazz could still be sitting near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Instead, they're treading water, just barely above the .500 mark.
"There's gonna be times where you turn the ball over and that's just part of the game," Jazz coach Will Hardy said. "But there is a lot of the game that we do control our approach, our mental focus, and that's what we have to focus on as we move into this next stretch of home games."
Hardy said the focus left in the third quarter and not with the late turnovers.
Utah rode Lauri Markkanen, who had 24 of his 32 points in the first half, to a 7-point halftime lead; Markkanen got most of his points on off-ball movement, and the Jazz were able to locate him for open shots. The ball movement went away in the third quarter, though, and resulted in a 23-8 run by Chicago. The Jazz didn't lead again.
"I think, at times, when the game gets tough and things aren't going your way, you can go into your default mode," Hardy said. "And sometimes that's when we play a little bit too much in isolation. The ball doesn't move around as much, and that's natural. So we just have to continue to emphasize the way that we play as a team."
Conley, no doubt, would have helped to get the ball moving.
Outside of Conley, the Jazz don't have another natural point guard on the roster. Currently, there's no one who can consistently get the team into their sets when things get tight or a defense gets more aggressive. On Monday, that played a role in Utah shooting 42% from the field in the second half (it would have been hard to survive a 3-of-15 night from Jordan Clarkson regardless of who was playing).
Still, it's tough not to wonder where the Jazz would be if Conley hadn't hyperextended his knee nine days ago in Portland. Well, for everyone except Hardy.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, I haven't thought about Mike once in the last three or four days," the Jazz coach said.
If you're looking for a silver lining to the five-game losing streak, it's that the Jazz have been able to get more run for their young guards. Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have all gotten significant time to run the team over the last few games. The results, as expected, have been mixed.
There's been highs along the way — Sexton, a more natural scorer, showed vision on passes; Alexander-Walker has been a solid perimeter defender; Horton-Tucker used his size to create opportunities for himself and his teammates — and there's been plenty of lows too, such as tunnel vision, poor shots and bad turnovers.
That's part of the developmental stage of a career.
"I think all three of those guys have had good moments and tough moments. They're all still so young in their careers — like, they have so far to go," Hardy said. "The ceilings on them, we're not sure what they are yet, but I think it's been great to get to see all of them play extended minutes.
"It's very hard to play basketball in really short stretches; you get three and a half minutes, and by the time you start sweating and get subbed out. So I think it's been great to see all of them kind of get into the flow of the game a little bit. They all have stuff that they can bring to the table for us."
Markkanen agreed and admitted the Jazz need Conley back to help facilitate the passing, but his current absence may prove to be helpful down the road.
"It's gonna be good for us just getting all the guys all the reps we need and different lineups that we might end up needing at the end of the year," he said. "So I'm sure we will learn from this experience."
The Jazz miss Conley, but they might be better in the long run because he's out.