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Without Donovan Mitchell available due to ankle injury, Jordan Clarkson steps up and carries offensive load

Clarkson scored 30 points in 116-98 win vs. ATL as Mitchell sat.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) on the court as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Donovan Mitchell stood in the corner, taking one dribble between his legs, then two, three, four, five. The shot went up at last, swished through, and the bench cheered.

Except Mitchell didn’t have the game ball, just an imaginary one. He was wearing a Grateful Dead shirt, not his Jazz uniform. He was standing on the sidelines, three feet behind, imitating the man doing the real thing.

As Mitchell missed the game against the Hawks due to an ankle sprained in the Jazz’s last game against the Kings, the Jazz needed someone to step up from a scoring perspective. And while it took a while, that man appeared: Jordan Clarkson.

Clarkson was coming off of perhaps the worst slump of his career, missing 22 consecutive 3-point shots. And in the first half, that trend continued, as Clarkson clanged shot after shot off the rim. One even missed the rim entirely.

But it was Clarkson’s second half performance that stole the show: 25 points in the two periods, 3-point shots off the dribble, making and-ones, twisting stepbacks in the midrange, and just generally some of the most aesthetically pleasing scoring you’ll see in the NBA.

“I just tried to just continue to be myself,” Clarkson said. “My teammates, coaches, management, everybody just kept coming to me, saying ‘keep shooting, keep shooting.’”

It’s worth noting that Clarkson wasn’t alone. Joe Ingles started for Mitchell, just as he does when any of the Jazz’s starters are injured. In the first half, Ingles really kept the Jazz in the game, thanks to his ability to knock down the open three ball. And Bojan Bogdanovic found his rhythm in the second half, attacking the Hawks inside, then hitting haymaking threes on the outside that pushed them even further away.

Mitchell’s absence was a little bit of a surprise, after he finished his previous game. At the end of the first half against the Sacramento Kings, Donovan Mitchell collided into Davion Mitchell during a fast break, earning a charge call and a twisted ankle. Mitchell just hopped off the court and straight to the locker room, getting his ankle taped. But he came back on the floor, leading to a scintillating second half against the Kings.

However, as swelling increased and after traveling to Atlanta, Mitchell was ruled out of the Jazz’s game vs. the Hawks.

“Yeah, I just rolled it and it was just like a normal thing — to roll my ankle,” Mitchell said after the game on Tuesday. “It’s not because of what happened last year, although it was the same foot.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder said that Mitchell not playing against Atlanta two days later was due to the Jazz taking a “conservative and diligent” approach. Mitchell will be re-evaluated before the Jazz’s game against Miami, so it’s not expected to be a long-term injury.

But that doesn’t mean that the Jazz won’t be without Mitchell at other points this season. While he doesn’t have the miles that fellow backcourt guard Mike Conley does, Mitchell may be rested at times if the team is worried about his workload. Both Mitchell and Jazz management want him to be healthy for this year’s playoffs, unlike last year’s failed month. Injuries he may have played through last year won’t be played through this year — Mitchell learned that lesson.

In those moments, the Jazz can use Clarkson as kind of a poor man’s Mitchell. He’s not the passer or rebounder Mitchell can be at his best, and never will be. But Clarkson does have the ability to get truly game-changingly hot while scoring from all three levels, just as Mitchell does — making tough threes, showing off midrange finesse, and getting all the way to the rim for silky layups.

Mitchell’s absences also require someone from the Jazz’s bench guard duo to step up too, whether that be Trent Forrest or Jared Butler. Against the Hawks, it was Forrest, to great effect. Forrest did a very good job in guarding Hawks star Trae Young, while penetrating and dishing out to 3-point shooters on the other end. Butler’s much more adept in scoring the ball himself, so if Clarkson doesn’t have it going, the rookie guard from Baylor could be used as some instant offense in his own right.

In short, the Jazz’s win against the Hawks showed that, even without Mitchell, they don’t lose their identity. They’re still defensively tough, they’re still a ball-movement-oriented team that can get open shots anywhere on the perimeter, and they still have the skill to blow good teams out.

And they still have their star man standing behind them — literally, in fact.

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