Jordan Clarkson’s first playoff run didn’t go well.
It was two seasons ago, and he had just been acquired in a last ditch deadline deal to try to save the Cavaliers, to give LeBron James the supporting cast necessary to win another NBA Finals.
Being thrust from the perennially losing Lakers into the Eastern Conference Finals favorite was jarring to Clarkson, and it seemed to reflect in his play that playoffs. He shot just 30% from the field in 19 games, averaging just 4.7 points per game in 15 minutes per contest. By Game 3 and Game 4 of the Finals, he was moved out of the rotation entirely. The Cavs were swept.
Fast forward to 2020 after Clarkson’s next mid-season trade, and he looks like a different man. Clarkson is averaging 19.8 points per game in this playoff run, including a 24-point performance in Game 4 that the Jazz needed every bit of.
“There was a lot of learning for me to do, not even ever being in the playoffs in that situation before,” Clarkson said. “But here, I think it’s kind of groomed me for this moment.”
He’s slicing and dicing Denver’s defense, coming off of screens and shooting, then attacking weak points in isolation and driving. The Nuggets have rotated through various defenders and team approaches to keep containment on him, but they can’t seem to. Even when they do, prayer shots for most players seem to be makable for Clarkson.
“It’s a breath of fresh air, not just for myself but for the entire team, to have a guy that wants the ball with four seconds on the clock, the guy that can just take it iso and get buckets any way he can,” Donovan Mitchell said. “Efficiently, too. He’s been a really unsung hero here.”
Of course, Quin Snyder appreciates the bailout scoring, especially on a bench unit that lacks scoring and playmaking prowess at times. But Snyder also has taken notice of his impact on the other side of the ball — the defensive side where Clarkson’s usually considered a liability. In this series, Clarkson’s effort on that end, and on the glass, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s a selfless guy,” Snyder said. “It’s not often as a coach, you get to coach a guy that’s as authentic as he is. I love coaching him, it’s just been a lot of fun because he’s a sponge. Everything you tell him, he’s soaking it up and trying to do. He’s a unique player, he cares about both ends of the floor and he cares about winning more than anything.”
The development on both sides of the ball — his 3-point shot and defense especially — means that Clarkson isn’t a liability in the playoffs anymore, but a huge boon to a team. His teammates are appreciative.
“Every great team has a guy like JC (Jordan Clarkson), a guy that you know you can count on to come in and change the momentum of games with his scoring ability, with his playmaking,” Mike Conley said. “He’s getting to the paint, looking for guys in the corner, looking for guys on drop passes down low. All that stuff is just showing you the growth of him during this series, so the more of that we get from him, the better we are.”
And Conley’s right. With Clarkson exceeding playoff expectations so far, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Jazz have, too.