Portland, Ore. • As much as Thursday night was supposed to be a coronation of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, given their selections as reserves for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, it was newbie sixth man Jordan Clarkson who stole the show for the Jazz in what would wind up a six-point loss to the Nuggets.
His 13-point first half pushed Utah out front, even as Mitchell struggled to get the ball to meet the net. And after Denver seized control with a 27-1 run, it was Clarkson’s 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter that rallied the Jazz and gave them a shot in a game that had appeared too far gone just minutes before.
Clarkson’s acquisition by the Jazz from the Cavs had initially prompted questions about his fit within coach Quin Snyder’s highly intricate and somewhat regimented scheme. After all, the thinking went, Clarkson was a freelancer, an empty-calories scorer, an unrepentantly shameless gunner. And yet, when a Cleveland-based reporter inquired about the fit after Thursday’s game, noting that Clarkson had not exactly been known as a “system guy” with the Cavs, Snyder interrupted, dismissing outright any notion of friction stemming from having to rein in the bad tendencies of his new guard.
“I love him. I love him. Look, write it down — I love him,” Snyder interjected. “Sometimes a system needs to be malleable. He’s unselfish, he attacks the rim and gets to the line. If a ‘system’ is defense, he’s embraced that. I think he’ll continue to learn some of the things that we want from our group, but I want him to be instinctive.”
JORDAN CLARKSON AT A GLANCE
• The 27-year-old was born in Tampa, Fla., but attended high school in San Antonio.
• Selected 46th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards on behalf of the L.A. Lakers.
• Acquired by the Jazz on Dec. 23, 2019; in the final season of a four-year, $50M contract.
• Has averaged 15.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists on 46.0% shooting (34.9% from 3) in 18 games with the Jazz.
Indeed, Clarkson’s ability to be unpredictable has bolstered a previously moribund second unit. In 18 games played with the Jazz since the trade, he has scored 15.1 points per game while shooting 46% from the field.
It was all on display at the Pepsi Center — off-the-bounce wizardry; shiftiness and slitheriness navigating the Nuggets’ defenses; irrational confidence beyond the arc (where he nailed 7 of 12 tries).
For his part, Clarkson said the freedom that Snyder has afforded him on the court went a long way in trying to bring the Jazz back against the Nuggets.
“When I’ve got space, coach is just telling me, ‘Let it go,’” he said. “I was just trying to do what I could do to impact the game. … I was just trying to pull us into the game where we’d have a shot at the end.”
Snyder, meanwhile, had no issues with the guard’s arguably-impetuous missed 3-pointer that effectively ended Utah’s last gasp.
“He brought us back in the game. So if he makes that shot … It seems like he’s being aggressive, and that’s what I want. He was terrific,” Snyder said. “… You can always be critical of a decision here, a decision there — sometimes when you’re critical, a guy’s making shots. They’re out there playing. He battled his tail off, he was aggressive, I thought he was really good.”
Afterward, Clarkson spoke publicly for the first time about the death of league icon Kobe Bryant — a man that he not only called a teammate but considered a friend.
Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday shook the Jazz guard, and he acknowledged that the subsequent days have been an emotional struggle.
“Kobe being one of my teammates, my mentor, it just hit me hard. I haven’t really spoke on it or said anything; I’m still just trying to process it. He was like Superman to me,” Clarkson said. “… It’s tough. But I know he would want us to keep going, keep hoopin’ and keep pushing.”
He certainly did that Thursday, earning further respect from his teammates for almost single-handedly powering them through.
“We wouldn’t have been there without him,” said Mitchell. “… I really respect him and his approach, ’cause we could have just easily hung it up and called it quits on the second night of a back-to-back.”
“He was huge,” added Gobert. “He hit big shot after big shot and gave us a little hope at the end.”
Snyder was impressed, too. Not merely because of what Clarkson did, but also because it made him recognize what Clarkson may yet be able to do.
“The opportunity to continue to get better is there for him offensively as well,” Snyder said, “which is a heck of a statement given what he did tonight.”
JAZZ AT TRAIL BLAZERS
At Moda Center, Portland, Ore.
Tipoff • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MT
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 32-16; Blazers 21-27
Last meeting • Jazz, 121-115 (Dec. 26)
About the Jazz • Utah’s late-third/early-fourth collapse vs. Denver on Thursday included 12 consecutive missed shots, leading to 19 straight Nuggets points. … Donovan Mitchell, who scored just four points against the Nuggets, had team-highs of 35 points and seven assists the last time the Jazz faced the Blazers. … Reserve forward Georges Niang remains fourth in the league in 3-point percentage, at 44.5%
About the Blazers • All-Star guard Damian Lillard ranks fourth in the NBA in points per game (29.0), sixth in assists (7.8) and second in 3-pointers made per game (3.8). … Portland blocks the second-most shots per game (6.5) of any team in the league, trailing only the Lakers. … The Blazers will be on the second night of a back-to-back after playing at the Lakers on Friday night.