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Mike Conley, Rudy Gay close to return for Jazz

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SALT LAKE CITY โ€” A glance down the Utah Jazz bench over the last two weeks would show Mike Conley sitting in street clothes restlessly toying with his hands.

Conley has missed the last eight games since injuring the popliteus muscle in his left knee during Utah's 118-113 win in Portland on Nov. 19. Since then, Conley's been eager to get back on the court.

"You kind of get into helpless mode," Conley said about sitting and watching. "I get real fidgety and start playing with my hands, and just anxious."

After the long wait, his return is on the horizon.

On Monday, Conley was a full participant in practice for the first time since the injury. But he's not alone; the Jazz will be getting more reinforcements, too. Fellow veteran Rudy Gay was also a full participant as he inches closer to a return.

The Jazz have gone 2-6 since Conley's injury, and have fallen from the top of the Western Conference into the jam-packed middle of the standings. So the earlier Conley can get back the better.

Will that happen on Wednesday against Golden State? Conley said he wants that to be the case, but it's still too early to tell.

"I feel a lot better," he said after practice. "Each day is getting better. Today's the first time really practicing with contact and stuff, so the past week or so it's been kind of transitioning from walking to jogging to running. I still feel it but it's obviously good enough to kind of wear it down a little bit to see where it's at."

The next couple days will determine exactly what his status is going forward. If his knee responds well and he's able to practice again on Tuesday, he stands a chance of suiting up against the Warriors. If not, well, the waiting game will continue.

Conley praised the work that Collin Sexton has done to start games in his absence, saying he's seen a jump in play from his first start to his eighth one on Saturday. He specifically noted his growth and patience as a facilitator. Sexton has averaged 16.9 points and 5.3 assists in the eight starts since Conley's went down.

Those are good stats, no doubt, but there's no getting around how the Jazz, once one of the best teams in the NBA in clutch minutes, have gone 0-5 in close games since Conley's injury. That record is not a coincidence.

While Lauri Markkanen has been Utah's best player this season, Conley has been the most important โ€” especially late in games.

Conley is averaging a career-high 7.9 assists and a career-low-tying 1.5 turnovers this season, and the Jazz have leaned on him to create good possessions down the stretch. With him in the lineup, Utah is 8-3 in tight games.

Conley has been trying to do his best to help the team while sidelined and has pulled Sexton, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Talen Horton-Tucker to the side to try and coach them up. It's gotten him involved in the team and engaged, but it isn't the same feeling as being on the court, though.

"I can't tell Collin when he's dribbling the basket or Nickeil when he's dribbling to the basket to look to the corner, or this is going to happen," Conley said. "So I just sit there and I know that something might happen good or bad and I have no control over it, and it makes me want to get back even quicker. It makes me want to go home at night and do whatever I can, rehabbing wise, and try to help these guys as quickly as I can."

When it comes to Gay, the team announced on Nov. 17 that an MRI had revealed a third finger MCP joint sprain. Gay said his finger is feeling better and hopes for a Wednesday return, as well.

Gay admits he'll probably have to play through the injury to a certain extent, but time away was needed to reduce inflammation. When asked how long he would need to wear tape around his fingers, he said it was precautionary, and that he didn't think it would be on for long.

"My prediction? The first quarter of whatever game I play in," Gay answered to laughter.

Gay averages just 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game this season and was a regular rotation player for the Jazz during their hot start.

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