Let’s write it all plain here — in permanent ink.
The Jazz would not have 35 wins on the season at this juncture were it not for the acquisition of Jordan Taylor Clarkson.
He’s the man. He’s the mainstay. He’s the mojo.
OK, so that last part is a bit of dramatic simplification.
It’s been bigger than just that, than just him. Bigger than one player. But think about the past two games, games that represent what Clarkson has done in many other games. These most recent ones, though, were outings the Jazz needed to win in order to restore order, to regain momentum they had lost during a five-game skid.
Consider that rearrangement done.
And consider Clarkson a primary reason for getting it done.
The player with the artwork all over his personal canvas, ink that has great meaning to him, telling his story and repping his parents, his daughter and friends, people who have inspired and helped him along his ascending path, scored 30 points at Houston, followed by 25 points against Dallas for a club that was lurching in both instances.
Against the Mavericks on Monday night, after the Jazz jumped to a large lead, they sharply faded. The Mavs were running at the starters in the third quarter when Clarkson entered and provided the exact kind of scoring blur the Jazz were desperate for. In Sunday’s win over the Rockets, Clarkson did the heavy lifting in overcoming the business end of a widening deficit.
“JC’s been playing out of his mind,” is the way Donovan Mitchell summarized it.
The 27-year-old Filipino-American guard, who played in college at Tulsa and Missouri, is a seasoned vet now who had been drafted in 2014 by the Washington Wizards, as a second-round pick, and quickly traded to the Lakers. After a few seasons, he was shipped from L.A. to Cleveland, and now, just before Christmas, to the Jazz.
He’s always been capable of getting buckets. His career average is 14.8 points.
But those points — he’s averaging 16 for the Jazz — seem to carry more weight now that he is scoring them for not just a quality team with a purpose, but a quality team with a purpose that required the aforementioned bolstering at the offensive end when starters such as Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles began slipping and sagging.
Prior to his arrival, the Jazz had no such spark.
After the first month of the season, it was clear to everyone, foremost among them Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik, that the bench was losing the Jazz games. When the frontline players were subbed out in the latter stages of the first and third quarters, there wasn’t enough oomph coming in reserve.
Jeff Green couldn’t provide it, so he was waived. Ed Davis was never considered any kind of offensive presence. Dante Exum had become such a liability on offense for the club that he was shoved to the end of the bench. And when that happened, the five-year experiment-turned-misadventure that began with Exum’s drafting by way of the fifth overall pick in the same 2014 NBA Draft Clarkson was taken and that defined Exum’s time with the Jazz was snuffed out.
The Jazz forthrightly traded Exum and two second-round picks for You-Know-Who.
Anyone who doubts the brilliance of that move — if there are any such creatures left — can put this inquiry to the test: What would Exum have contributed in these last two games, when the Jazz were in danger of getting blown out by the hot-shooting Rockets at Toyota Center and when the Mavs came charging back in Dallas?
There’s only one way to answer that question: Not a lot.
Clarkson was freaking money.
He saved his teammates in both games — and it wasn’t just his dominance, his forcefulness, his shooting from outside and in. It was his cohesion and awareness on attack. Against Dallas, he had eight assists.
And so it is that in the wake of an offseason when the Jazz garnered much attention from observers around the league and stirred expectation from media and fans for and with their bold moves to acquire the services of Mike Conley, Bogdanovic, Green and Davis, their best transaction came last — the addition of Clarkson.
They always liked the guard.
They love him now.
And they kind of like Emmanuel Mudiay, as well, another throw-in bench mate who helped rescue the Jazz in Dallas — with his energy and his scoring.
“That’s [who] kept us in the game, kept us in the lead,” said Alex Jensen, subbing in for the vocal-chord-challenged Quin Snyder in the postgame on Monday night. “We lost our focus. We got stagnant … Our bench did a great job picking it back up for us.”
It’s not simply a general microwavable charge Clarkson is giving the Jazz, it’s a strategic one, too. For example, against Houston’s quick-switching defense, the same defense that helped the Rockets oust the Jazz in the last two postseasons by jamming up Snyder’s preferred blender offense, Clarkson’s presence was valuable for this reason — he is an additional playmaker who can hurt that kind of resistance.
Before Clarkson’s arrival, in those playoff series, the Rockets did their switching and crowded Mitchell, really the only Jazz player who at that point could create his own shot. On Sunday, the Rockets struggled to pull off that tactic because Mitchell now has company in the forms of Conley and Clarkson who also can force action to the basket, in the midrange and around the perimeter.
Clarkson’s excitement to be playing for a team with the talent and the intentions the Jazz have is evident to his teammates, his coaches and everybody who watches his play, his body language on the court. That play is now powered by purpose, a bonus of a turbo’ed engine that has made him all the more effective and valuable.
He’s not a starter for the Jazz, but he might as well be.
He’s the first example why Snyder bristles at distinctions and delineations made by outsiders over who starts and who comes off the bench. Clarkson is significant, either way.
And if the Jazz reach their lofty goals this season, this postseason, he’ll be one of the major reasons for that success. A remarkable fact, considering he wasn’t even on the team when all those big intentions were incubated and hatched.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.