SALT LAKE CITY – The scars run deep for Jazz fans, most of whom can quickly recite all the impediments – self-induced or otherwise – that have prevented the franchise from winning the elusive NBA championship.
From missed free throws with playoff games hanging in the balance to blown series and questionable officiating, the team and its fans have endured plenty of heartache to go along with all the good times. No wonder a good portion of the base believes if something can go wrong, it will.
Amid the current sensational regular season, a new worry has surfaced – assuming Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell return to health in time for the playoffs, will their transition back into the rotation be smooth or will it blast team chemistry?
Mitchell (ankle) and Conley (hamstring) have missed the last 13 and eight games, respectively. After going 3-4 in the first seven games without Mitchell, the Jazz have regrouped to go 6-2 without both players over the eight games.
Along the way, the current group of healthy players have settled into the different rotations and filled the void well enough to seize control of first place in the Western Conference. Usual starters Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale and top reserve Jordan Clarkson have maintained their level of play, but virtually the rest of the lineup has taken on greater responsibilities.
Bojan Bogdanovic, who struggled through a shooting slump earlier this season, averaged 29.3 points in four games last week while shooting 62.3 percent from the field and 53.8 percent on three-pointers. His 48-point outburst in the win over the Denver Nuggets helped him be named player of the week in the Western Conference.
“He’s just confident in every shot,” Mitchell said via Zoom during Monday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. “He’s figured it out at the right time.”
The likes of Georges Niang and previously seldom-used Trent Forrest also have played well in the absence of the two all-stars. The trick now is for the role players to maintain their individual levels of effectiveness when the starting backcourt returns.
While fans may fret over the possibilities, the players eagerly welcome the healthy roster. Bogdanovic’s scoring spree aside, the forward has stated multiple times that he wants Mitchell and Conley back as soon as possible.
Joe Ingles, who has become the team’s primary playmaker since the injuries, will have no problem coming off the bench again once the team’s playoffs begin the weekend of May 22. When asked about his level of concern reincorporating Mitchell and Conley back in the rotation, Ingles quickly and succinctly responded with: “Zero.”
“We won all those games with our full team,” Ingles said during his weekly appearance on The Zone Sports Network.
Can’t argue with Ingles there. When the two players went out, the Jazz had the league’s best record at 42-14.
Aside from Conley, who has missed 20 games, the Jazz have enjoyed a run of good health this season. Only Ingles, Clarkson and Derrick Favors have missed a handful of games each for assorted ailments.
The Jazz are used to playing without Conley, who has regularly missed games during his two seasons. Based on recent history, his return should not create any problems.
The team’s leading scorer at 26.4 points a game, Mitchell has never missed more than five games in his three prior seasons. He might need the first round to mesh with his teammates.
“We’ve got two more pretty special players that are going to come in and be aggressive and play their games,” Ingles said. “We’ll all figure it out.”
As a consequence of the injuries, more players have gained valuable experience in the playoffs. The result is increased depth if coach Quin Snyder needs to tap into his bench.
“These guys have come in and played well,” Ingles said. “I think that’s a good thing for our group. If something does happen – knock on wood (that it doesn’t) – we’ve got guys that are confident to come in and play meaningful minutes.”