The Triple Team: Jazz fans show the world their best, as Utah rallies to beat Donovan Mitchell’s Cavs

The All-Star guard received a warm welcome in his first game back at Vivint Arena.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) hugs Gail Miller as the Utah Jazz host the Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 116-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. I’m so proud of Jazz fans tonight

I’ll be honest: I was so worried.

I saw the Facebook and Twitter reactions to Donovan Mitchell’s departure — and they were pretty negative towards the former Jazz star. Then, when the Andscape interview came out about how he found it draining to live in Utah, I saw further negative reaction. Certainly, many people were positive online, too, but that negativity stood out.

Because of those data points, limited as they were, I was worried that a large enough segment of Jazz fans would boo Mitchell. More than that, I was worried that the boo birds would persist when Mitchell touched the ball. Cheers could drown out the boos, but there’s not really a positive equivalent when the game is in action.

And I was worried about how that would make Jazz fans look. How it would make Utah look. After all of the things Mitchell did for the Jazz as an organization, for him to have been booed because of his departure (not his call) or his comments (accurate), would have reflected much more on Jazz fans than it would have on Mitchell himself.

This state is my forever home. This team is my forever team. I grew up here, rooting for Stockton and Malone. Later, as a freshman in high school, I bought upper bowl corner season tickets with the money I made at my summer job, rooting for Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer’s emergence. And while I’m now a mostly responsible and professional media person... I still identify with Jazz fans, as a basketball fan and as a Utahn.

So when Mitchell was nearly universally cheered at tip off, a sense of relief washed over me.

Instead of embarrassment, I felt pride.

Obviously, the internet is not a mirror of real life — and I was probably wrong to worry so much about the opinion of the loudest voices online. I also think immense credit should go to the Jazz for how they handled this. If the organization had criticized Mitchell at all, I think fans would have gone along.

But nope. The Jazz went above and beyond: owner Ryan Smith went on a media campaign on Monday to talk about his perspective on Mitchell, explaining why fans should cheer. The team’s social media accounts spoke positively about Mitchell, as did all of the team’s players before the game. The in-arena video screen showed both a public service announcement about fan behavior and Mitchell’s tribute video before he was announced.

Not only that, but the fans were great throughout. They were engaged. When he went to the line, he was jeered, but not particularly vociferously. When he had an airball, fans kind of laughed along with the moment — even the “airball” chants were mild. Oh, and Mitchell scored 46 points and showed why he is one of the best players in the NBA.

As he walked off after a disappointing loss (to him, anyway), Mitchell met nearly everyone in a Jazz uniform, along with team owner Smith and various other Utah luminaries, and received a standing ovation on the way out. He even had time for some advice for Jazz rookie Walker Kessler. Then, he met with his team in the locker room, with media for 20 minutes, and even Jazz coaches, including Will Hardy, in the back hallways. He was a class act throughout.

So were Jazz fans. In a big moment for this club and this state, Jazz fans delivered by showing off the best of what this fanbase is.

2. Jordan Clarkson’s game-winning plays

With 100 seconds left in this game, the Jazz were in serious trouble. Down five points, Jordan Clarkson had just missed a tough three that would have brought it back to within one possession.

But his shot bounced off the rim hard, and it squirted off the fingertips of Cleveland’s Lamar Stevens. Clarkson got a second chance.

That’s all Clarkson, and his unusual ability to change directions like a water skeeter. He goes into a drive, bounces off of Caris LeVert, takes one big jump back, then jumps forward into the three. It’s almost like he was doing those box jumps you see in workout videos sometimes. LeVert’s closeout isn’t super awkward, but by the letter of the law, it’s a flagrant foul, because his foot gets underneath Clarkson’s landing zone.

Oh, and Clarkson makes the shot. So it’s three points, plus free throws, plus the ball. Why not dial up another three?

Who makes the contact here: LeVert or Clarkson? After the challenge by J.B. Bickerstaff, the refs decided that it was LeVert. I think that’s the right call: LeVert’s still moving forward, and while the contact obviously surprises him, I think it looks like Clarkson rises pretty vertically.

All three free-throws made.

One more game-winning play:

Clarkson rejects the screen, and attacks Evan Mobley one on one. I normally don’t love that, because Mobley is one of the best defenders in the NBA, and is so much longer than Clarkson. But he gets to his right so quickly, and in only two dribbles, gets into the paint, gets the ball up with his right hand, and puts it in. Mobley can’t even get his arms up in time to react.

It was the very best of what Clarkson can do. A game-changing nine points in 37 seconds that turned the tide from a 90% chance the Jazz would lose this game to an 85% chance of victory.

3. Rebounding from the 7-footers

Statistically, the Jazz won this game because of their rebounding. They shot the ball worse than the Cavs, and gave up more turnovers, but they had a 15-8 advantage on the offensive glass and 27-10 advantage in second-chance points.

How? Well, seven-footers Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler did a great job on the glass — better than the Jazz’s starters usually do even with a bigger lineup. Markkanen had 16 boards tonight, 3 offensive and 13 defensive, while Kessler had 11: six offensive and five defensive.

Nine of Markkanen’s 16 rebounds came in the 4th quarter. This is the kind of thing that Markkanen’s height allows him to do: run in from the baseline and just leap over people to get critical second chances.

Meanwhile, I loved this from Kessler. Beasley’s shooting from the left side, so where is the rebound most likely to go? The right side. Kessler beats Mobley under the basket, and gets to that opposite side first.

The Cavaliers came into the game as the NBA’s number one defensive rebounding team — though things were probably a little bit off with the early departure of Jarrett Allen. Regardless, the Jazz usually struggle at getting defensive rebounds, and have been much slower at getting offensive rebounds recently than they were at the beginning of the season. Tonight, they showed that extra effort, and that those trends all flipped tonight flipped the result of this game.

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