SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Conley remembered the energy of Memphis’ home playoff games. He recalled how Beale Street would be buzzing with fans, making it hard to even get to the arena. He remembered the Growl Towels waving and the deafening cheers of the crowd.
So on his return to that same environment he once longed for each season, he thought he’d feel a little more emotion.
“When we started to compete, all that stuff kind of goes out the window,” Conley said. “I thought I’d be more wrapped up in it.”
It turns out, he was a bit more concerned in giving Utah a lead in its first-round series against his former team than any sort of nostalgia. Conley scored 27 points and handed out eight assists as the Jazz took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 121-111 win over the Grizzlies Saturday at FedEx Forum.
“Sometimes you live long enough to become the villain,” Conley said. “And I’ve become that for the Memphis Grizzlies.”
At least a temporary one.
Memphis fans would probably like to blame Donovan Mitchell, who had 29 points, including a sizzling close to the game to secure the win; or Rudy Gobert, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds and helped shut down Memphis late; or anyone else on the Jazz, really.
But it was clear on Saturday: Conley has been Utah’s best player in the series — and, therefore, one of the main reasons the Grizzlies are two losses away from their season being over.
Their once beloved son has turned heel right before their eyes.
“There’s still love and you could see it and there’s also love in competing against them,” Mitchell said.
Conely was 7 of 10 from the 3-point line, with each one seemingly killing any Memphis momentum. Then he bodied up Ja Morant at the end of the game as Utah went on a game-sealing 12-0 run. What’s worse for the fans in Memphis? He seemed to be enjoying it every step of the way.
“To be back here competing against Ja — you’ve got the OG and you’ve got the young guy,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s pretty dope.”
Morant was sensational again, finishing with 28 points and seven assists in the loss, but he went 0 for 4 with a turnover in the final four minutes. Gobert, obviously, had an impact in that, but Jazz coach Quin Snyder gave the biggest credit to his starting point guard.
“He was unbelievable,” Snyder said of Conley’s defensive stretch late. “Just his quickness, his presence on the ball.”
Said Mitchell: “Mike was terrific on both ends of the floor. He was Mike Conley, and he always has been for us all year and he’s taking it to another level.”
The thing is, Memphis fans have seen that level before. Conley led the Grizzlies to an underdog run to the Western Conference Finals and helped a No. 8 squad beat a No. 1 seed. They knew how special he could be in the playoffs — now, they know what it’s like to play against him.
It turns out, it’s pretty heartbreaking, especially with how things ended on Saturday.
The Grizzlies rallied from a 15-point deficit to take a 2-point lead with 4:27 left in the fourth quarter — there was hope; there was excitement. But it was all very short-lived as Conley’s defense squashed Memphis’ chance and Mitchell’s offense lit it on fire for the Jazz.
Mitchell hit an acrobatic layup for a 3-point play, nailed a 3-pointer and then drew the sixth and eliminating foul on Jazz foe Dillon Brooks. Mitchell scored 10 points during the 12-0 game-deciding run.
“Honestly, you don’t want to say, ‘must win’ too soon, but it felt like that,” Conley said. “That’s the kind of urgency we’re playing with, and we’ll continue to play with throughout the series. This team isn’t a team you want to play around with at all.”
So, instead, Conley will just continue to play around with the hearts of Memphis fans. When he was introduced on Saturday, the deafening crowd, for an instant, went from boos to cheers. Will that happen again?
After all, he’s the villain now.
“It’s amazing to be playing as a guy like Ja — just seeing a guy that’s so talented, a young superstar in the league, wearing the jersey that I’m so used to wearing, getting the cheers from the crowds that I’m so used to hearing is surreal,” Conley said. “It’s like full circle; you never thought it would be this way — I never did at least.”