TORONTO — The gut-check started slow, like hunger pangs. In a landscape like the NBA each team gets precious few chances, twice per individual franchise, to go up against their opponents on the other side of the conference line. Some of these meetings can seem predetermined, depending on standings or a team’s overall health and performance up to that point in the season. But others can be like coming up against a reflection. Teams so evenly matched either in stats, depth, or more nuanced qualifiers like chemistry or generosity of gameplay, that games become a measuring stick to hold against either’s season.
The Jazz appeared as evenly matched a team as you could hope to find for the Raptors. A team whose coaching staff and players drop words like “unselfish” into how they describe their teammates, style of play, and approach to wins frequently and easily, without being prompted. A team, too, that holds a roster of occasionally overlooked prospects and proven veterans who combine to create a type of depth that is not always reliably measured on paper. But that said, the stats between teams also line up, making the Jazz something like a mirror placed way out west. And what do you do when faced with your reflection — take a glance in passing, or a long, hard look? Either way, it’s a chance to size yourself up.
Of this first meeting with the Raptors, the Jazz’s new veteran point guard Mike Conley was clairvoyant to his team’s parallels and their timing.
“It is ironic, we are playing a team that is very similar, especially defensively, they really get after it,” Conley told Uproxx before the game. “Play a little bit faster offensively. As far as the team is constructed we both play an unselfish type of basketball — multiple scorers, a lot of talent, guys figuring out roles, certain guys stepping up.”
In their first matchup this season, the Raptors were the ones sinking proverbial teeth in the gut that came to check them, forcing the Jazz into an uncomfortable, almost dissociative state of not recognizing themselves in the team on either end of the floor. But where the game stopped providing parallels is when it became interesting. With both teams no longer looking to the other as a test for themselves, both of their leaders were able to take a good look at their comparative match and the differences proved harder to spot than the similarities.
Conley arrived in Salt Lake City after 12 years in Memphis. Conley lived an entire basketball life in Memphis, arriving as a 20-year-old who had to compete for minutes against the version of Kyle Lowry that had everything to prove but no outlet to do it, and leaving as a franchise all-timer in points, games played, assists, steals, nearly any stat you could name, along with a few obscure ones you couldn’t. His game, like the franchise he was drafted into, had been a constant. He is a grinder, a slow builder, gently sonorous in a league where it can sometimes feel like leaning on the horn when it comes to style of play is the best way to be noticed.
When Conley arrived in Utah, it wasn’t that his game changed, just that everything else, from his drive to work to the thinner air he was breathing, did. Basketball became the most familiar thing even if the hardwood in SLC wasn’t.
As far as leaps, Conley may had traveled for his, but Fred VanVleet has come the farthest. Going from second unit to starter, initially due to Lowry’s thumb injury and subsequent surgery, VanVleet has stepped into the role without a judder. Because the way VanVleet plays, he never needed to try and step into Lowry’s shoes. VanVleet learned from Lowry what doggedness can bring to a game, but VanVleet’s persistence has had the opportunity to explode across the spectrum of what he can now do on the floor given all the extra minutes he was seeing in the weeks without Lowry.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse admitted that like many players on the team who saw their usage go up while he experimented with rotations in lieu of Lowry and Serge Ibaka, VanVleet is “taking advantage of the opportunity.”
“I think we’ve learned all we needed to know about Fred through last year to be honest with you,” Nurse said. “I think he’s a heck of a player. He guards, he shoots, he runs the team, he’s a winner, makes big shots. His numbers and minutes are way up because the opportunity presented itself.”
VanVleet echoed Nurse’s point as far as what he’s got left to prove. While he admits he’s “never satisfied,” the days of proving it are behind him: “I’m done proving it, I’ve shown it.”
So far, he has. His stats have not shifted all that dramatically in what he’s doing this season compared to last, only in what more minutes have afforded him. VanVleet is averaging 18.7 points per game, up from 11 last season, as his minutes have increased from 27 to 37 per game. In that increased time, he has also shot and made more threes while grabbing more rebounds. The stats that have jumped the most erratically for VanVleet are steals and assists, up from 0.9 and 4.8 last season, to two and 7.4, respectively. Still, the logic stays the same — more time on the floor, more time to gain insight as a playmaker and leader, and in his own words, more time to “roam around” looking for opportunities.
“I wouldn’t call him super quick but his movements are so deceptive,” Nurse said of VanVleet’s growing intuition. “He’ll head-fake one and shoop! He’s by a guy into the open. He just really knows how to play.”
But proof is often measured not by effort, but by how many people and who are paying attention at any given time. If it took the Toronto Raptors winning a championship for the league at large to notice how good VanVleet is, then it’s only another spinoff of the same persistent work.
Conley did not set out to prove anything in his first season in Utah, his entire career up to this point has been the proof. He’s had a slow start this season figuring out the rhythm of the Jazz — not so much how he fits, but when. His jumper has been giving him trouble, floaters coming up short and three-point shots out of sync, but in games where he has continued to shoot through it, or else recalibrate by taking a backseat, focusing on ball movement and creating moments for his teammates, he’s gone on to solid numbers.
The Jazz had their highest scoring quarter in franchise history with 49 points by the end of the third against Toronto. They’d come out of the half collectively tighter, communicating through the Raptors defensive blitzes to keep a handle on the ball where previously they were getting flustered, giving easy turnovers or giving up stops. Postgame, Conley would say that at the half he’d encouraged his teammates to “be okay with being uncomfortable,” a sentiment that Conley has applied to his own game ever since it was upended this season.
“We just started to pick it up, started being more physical, not worrying about foul calls, not worrying about contact, playing through things, not being so cool,” Conley said. “Getting into our uncomfortable zone.”
Within this zone, something clicked. Donovan Mitchell appeared less reluctant than he had all game, Joe Ingles’ size finally became a factor, and Conley was shooting well, nothing flashy, but quiet, confident.
“We were playing hard and playing for each other, making extra passes,” Conley said, “That’s Jazz basketball.” It was in the same stretch Conley settled into a rhythm and everything he did became deliberate, the timing intuitive.
When Conley wants to, he cuts. Up and right through to the hoop, like he’s magnetized to repel guys that seconds before had been jammed in the lane. But really, it’s timing. Conley shows his nuanced as a veteran in so many ways throughout a game, but his sense of timing is immaculate. He knows where a switch will force a gap, knows where to shift a step even if he’s still learning his teammates. It is a pleasure to watch him work and like in any new job, the fit, the expectations, the workaday cadence, all take time to pick up.
For someone who has had a rare, fixed career, Conley is unfazed by the temporary disruption.
“I love it, honestly. Outside of making a jump shot, everything has just been the most unbelievable experience,” Conley said “The teammates I have, the unselfish nature we have, the coaches, the things that we’re able to accomplish on the court. It’s a fun environment. I’m slowly finding it, but the more and more I play with these guys it’s just going to get better.”
When Conley and VanVleet met on the floor it was as if they skipped the handful of seconds players will spend sizing each other up. There was something instantly familiar. The match was so equanimous that Conley spent more time against rookie Terence Davis and VanVleet with Emmanuel Mudiay than each other. There was a moment, after the Raptors had run away with it and when it became clear the Jazz’s combustive but brief burst wouldn’t be enough to catch, that Conley and VanVleet hung out at mid-court, talking, as a play was reviewed. Two careers catching their breath — meeting in the middle — all thanks to timing.