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Mike Conley scores 22 points in his return to the Utah Jazz's starting lineup

by Aaron Falk

PORTLAND, Ore. — There was a smattering of applause and as the PA announced the name of the visiting 6-foot guard out of Ohio State. It was the 837th Mike Conley had heard some version of that introduction during his 13 NBA seasons. But after a monthlong absence and a six-game rehab stint coming off the bench, the Utah Jazz point guard was surely glad to hear it again.

“I think it’s just time for me to get back to doing what I do,” Conley said before tipoff Saturday.

And early on Conley certainly looked back: back on the court, back in the starting lineup, back to looking like the star point guard the Jazz traded for last summer. Conley’s play was a silver lining in a 124-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I think you saw Mike Conley,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s who he is.”

Conley finished with 22 points, four assists, and four rebounds. It was a preview of the kind of performance the Jazz know they’ll need from the veteran if they are to achieve their lofty postseason goals.

“To me, he’s the quintessential point guard,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of Conley. “He’s almost like John Stockton where he can score, he can run the offense, he can make 3s. He just does a little bit of everything.”

The Jazz training staff had been cautious with Conley as he worked his way back from injury. He had played with a minutes restriction over the last six games but was able to play a team-high 32 minutes Saturday.

“I’m happy to be back and just out there playing my role,” Conley said after the game. “I feel like I’m in a good place and I’ve been in a good place for a while now, just waiting for my opportunity again.”

A return to the starting lineup meant a return to the familiar, Conley said. And he looked like he was in his comfort zone from the jump. The point guard got on the board with an early floater, beat his man backdoor for an easy layup, and casually walked into a triple. He finished the period with 11 points (5-of-7 shooting), two assists and a rebound in nine minutes of action. After a pair of 3-pointers in the second, Conley was up to 19 points at the half.

“Big time. He was the reason we were still in it,” said guard Donovan Mitchell. “He was being aggressive. That’s the Mike Conley we all know.”

Conley’s return to the starting lineup meant Royce O’Neale’s move to the bench. The 3-and-D forward is often hailed for his unselfishness and sacrifice for his team and his willingness to make way for Conley only further showed why.

“We have seven or eight starters on our team,” Conley said. “Each guy has … sacrificed for the team.”

Conley is no different. Snyder praised the veteran guard for the way he has approached his new team and new system, how he worked to get back from the hamstring injury that caused him to miss a month of games, and his willingness to come off the bench the past few weeks.

“He’s been able to persevere through it,” Snyder said. “I know how frustrated he’s been because he’s wanted to play. That’s the part you don’t get a chance to see [from afar]. You hear about someone’s character, but until you go through it with someone you can’t see how they react to adversity. That’s what he’s demonstrated in my mind.

“For me, even in a short period of time, he’s someone you appreciate having the opportunity to coach. I know his teammates feel his willingness to mold himself. He’s got a lot of good basketball to be played. But not too many guys are even willing to try to adapt to a new situation like that. He’s done that at every turn.”

There are still kinks to be worked out, to be sure. Snyder said the team’s medical staff is still monitoring Conley’s minutes to ensure he remains healthy. And Conley was disappointed in defeat as he spoke with reporters after the game. Still, the veteran expects good things to come for himself and his team.

“I just feel like it’s going to get better,” he said.

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