Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley’s ability to use both hands propelled him to the win in the NBA’s first HORSE competition as he beat Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine for the title.
Conley took the title “H-O” to “H-O-R-S-E” in the championship round, which aired Thursday night.
With the sports world halted by the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA, National Basketball Players Association and ESPN teamed up to create the single-elimination NBA HORSE Challenge to provide fans with entertainment. And State Farm, the title sponsor, will donate more than $200,000 in support of coronavirus response efforts.
As the only one out of the eight contestants to play on an indoor basketball court, in Columbus, Ohio, Conley advanced to the final by eliminating former WNBA All-Star Tamika Catchings and then former NBA star Chauncey Billups in their semifinal.
He started the championship round by converting a difficult trick shot. The Jazz point guard drove from the left side of the basket and threw a right-handed behind-and-over-the-back bank shot that went in.
Throughout the competition, Conley, 32, used both his right hand and his left — his strong hand — to make things difficult for his opponents.
“If I could do it over, I would be all right-handed, honestly, and I would never have touched the ball left-handed,” Conley said. “I shoot so much better right-handed, it’s crazy. But it’s still my off hand.”
Conley followed that up by sinking a free throw with his eyes closed to put LaVine into an early “H-O” hole.
LaVine, playing on an outdoor court and in elements including wind and light rain in Snohomish, Washington, used his athleticism to beat former Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce and then WNBA star Allie Quigley in a competitive semifinal.
While there was no dunking allowed in the competition, LaVine gave Pierce and Quigley trouble with an all-net layup in which the dunker dropped the ball through the rim as if he were about to dunk it. But Conley was able to match LaVine in their competition by converting an all-net layup from below the rim.
LaVine, 25, was able to give Conley one of his letters with an athletic move that involved tapping the glass on the right side with the basketball before converting a reverse layup on the left side.
But Conley used trick shots such as spinning the ball on a finger and punching it off the glass and in with his other hand and also driving and going behind the basket and throwing up a right-handed floater over the backboard and in for the win.
“He had some tricks I hadn’t seen before,” LaVine said. “He made some really, really tricky shots.”
After his victory, Conley weighed in on the friction that arose last month between Jazz teammates Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert over the team’s coronavirus situation.
Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, which immediately led the NBA to put the season on hold, and Mitchell tested positive as well.
Gobert recently said he had spoken to Mitchell for the first time since they tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The fun-loving Gobert exhibited some careless behavior before the center was aware that he was infected.
“They’re fine,” Conley said when asked during an interview on SportsCenter about Mitchell and Gobert’s relationship. “They’re competitors. They want to win.”
“Our team chemistry has been as solid as ever and I am excited to hopefully get out there soon once this thing gets under control,” Conley added. “I think guys will be excited to be around each other again and kind of get that breath of fresh air and to start over and have a chance to win the championship.”
Now Conley, like the rest of the NBA, is hoping that he can get back to the real competition eventually.
“Number one, guys just want to know all the precautions are taken, that we want to be safe and we don’t want to put our families at jeopardy or anybody else,” Conley said about a potential return. “I know guys are itching to be out there now.”