Jordan Clarkson’s defensive stop exemplifies Jazz commitment and effort in big win vs. Clippers

Utah Jazz's Jordan Clarkson (00) and Kris Dunn (11) celebrate during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Remember the troubles the Jazz have had against the Clippers small lineups?

Of course you do. It was the defining moment of the failure of the last Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert iteration of the Jazz. With a 25-point lead in the Western Conference Semifinals, having just tore the regular season to shreds, the Jazz completely choked against that lineup to get knocked out of the playoffs. It was, frankly, the franchise’s most disappointing moment since the Stockton and Malone days.

That wasn’t enough. Just to rub in that, nope, they definitely could not guard the Clippers’ small lineup, the Jazz did the same exact thing the next season, giving up a 25-point, second-half lead to lose in exactly the same way again. It was, frankly, embarrassing.

So when the Clippers came at the Jazz in the 4th quarter with a small lineup, with the Jazz nursing a lead — albeit a smaller, 10-point one — you would have been forgiven for having your Jazz scars burn.

This Jazz team is different. They’re not better, to be clear. But more than that team did, they fight — fight that led to a 120-118 scintillating win on Friday night.

Jordan Clarkson’s commitment to defense

We’ll start with Jordan Clarkson’s defense. Is Clarkson known as a good defender? No. He’s pretty slight, for one, pretty easily knocked off his spot. He hasn’t been known to be especially engaged on that end — not enough that it’s a problem, but he’s rarely making a plus impact.

And down the stretch tonight, he simply locked down Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, a huge, crafty, strong dude with one of the biggest bags of tricks in the game, found that they weren’t working tonight while Clarkson was guarding him.

This play came in transition, with Leonard coming pretty quickly towards Clarkson — which the video misses. But Clarkson stays in front, staying with every pivot and ball fake, and just generally making Leonard’s life tough. At the end, he even gets a second hand in for the contest. Is Kawhi capable of making the shot? Of course. Is it a shot you can live with? Definitely.

But the best play of Clarkson’s came on the final possession, with the Jazz needing a stop to secure the win. Leonard gets the switch he wants: on Clarkson. Here’s how Walker Kessler narrated the play after the game:

“Unbelievable. The fact that he stayed down on 40 pump fakes in the last [sequence], that’s a very disciplined defender. That’s tough, extremely tough. Especially [because] you want to jump at it and make sure he doesn’t get any look. But to stay down, that’s impressive.”

It’s not just that Clarkson avoided making a mistake — he actively made life tough on Leonard. Clarkson stayed close. His feet moved throughout the possession, including when the ball was reset. His hands are engaged throughout, but never enough that Leonard can get a foul.

This is exactly the kind of defensive efforts that were missing in the first iteration in the Jazz. Do you remember how badly Reggie Jackson cooked them? Jackson was waived by the Pistons in 2020, and then was waived by the Hornets last year. But Mitchell (admittedly injured), Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Royce O’Neale couldn’t keep even him in front. (Jackson, George, and others started the cycle, that Terrance Mann finished off.

But with Clarkson improved as a defender under Will Hardy’s tutelage, the Jazz could keep the Clippers in front — and that made all the difference.

“He leaves tonight with six assists and having a defensive impact on the game,” Hardy said. “I think 12 months ago that may not have been something that we would have predicted for Jordan, but it’s a credit to him. He’s shifted his mindset on some of those things.”

The Jazz’s commitment to offensive rebounds

But Clarkson’s not the only one with a different mindset. Finally, the Jazz were also able to cook the Clippers on the offensive glass — just as they always should have.

That’s always been the obvious way to beat a smaller lineup: just kill them on the glass for easy second-chance points on one end, negating second-chance points on the other. But during those Jazz/Clippers matchups, the Jazz never found that level of dominance: they picked up a total of 54 offensive rebounds in the 2021 playoff series, for example. That’s exactly the same number the Clippers had. Whether it was Gobert’s struggles to box out, everyone else’s willingness to get involved, or just the fact that the Jazz’s defense was so discombobulated they weren’t in good rebounding position, it wasn’t an advantage for the Jazz in the way it should have been.

Tonight? Not the case.

The Jazz had a whopping 17 offensive rebounds tonight, which led to 33 second-chance points. The Clippers had six offensive rebounds, leading to eight second-chance points.

It takes a village to rebound well. But with the current Jazz’s size and inclination to get inside, they have chances at these possessions far greater than other Jazz teams might have. Kelly Olynyk gets this rebound, but look how many Jazzmen are inside the paint fighting for it — even the 6-4 Agbaji and the 6-1 Sexton.

Honestly, John Collins deserves a lot of the credit here. He picked up five of those offensive rebounds, and just battled on the glass all night. This one he doesn’t get credit for in the box score, but look how early he’s doing work:

Collins’ ability to rebound (remember, he once average 10 rebounds per game in a season, despite standing 6-9 and not primarily playing center) is going to be a big part of the Jazz’s possession battle math this season.

The efforts earned plaudits from Hardy.

“A lot of times, you crash, and you don’t get it. And so it’s like: are you gonna stay disciplined and stick to that process of ‘I gotta fly in there, and get banged into, and boxed out, and hit in the face and chest, and I didn’t get that one — on the next possession, I gotta go again?’ They’re committed to it.”

Commitment — that’s a good word for what this Jazz team has that the previous iteration that lost to the Clippers lacked. They’re not smarter, but they play harder. They’re not better, but they’ll relish the underdog role. When the other team goes on a run, they’ll counter with one of their own.

And in the game’s dying moments, they’ll play their best, not their worst. Come the Jazz’s next playoff run, months or years from now, that may make all the difference.

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