Donovan Mitchell returns to Utah, but Jordan Clarkson steals some of the spotlight

SALT LAKE CITY — For much of his NBA career, there have been doubts that Jordan Clarkson could be this.

By this, we mean a viable NBA starter who can contribute to winning basketball over the course of almost 30 minutes per night. By this, we mean an all-around offensive player, jet-setting beyond the typecast role of microwave scorer off the bench. And by this, we mean a closer, someone who puts opposing teams to sleep during crunchtime with his offensive prowess from possession to possession.

Utah’s 116-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday was supposed to be Donovan Mitchell’s night and his moment. And it was for the most part. Jazz fans showered their former star with multiple standing ovations. Mitchell then went bonkers, scoring a game-high 46 points to go along with six assists and five rebounds. He hugged and dapped up seemingly everyone in a packed Vivint Arena. He hugged his mother, Nicole, and sister, Jordan, when he was introduced. There was an emotional video tribute. And Mitchell was a monster for most of the night.

But the moments within the game that were the most crucial to the game? Those belonged to Clarkson.

“Jordan was obviously massive for us,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Especially in the second half.”

Nobody and nothing was going to completely steal Mitchell’s spotlight on Tuesday night. But Clarkson’s performance sure diverted the attention when the Jazz needed it the most.

The veteran shooting guard scored a team-high 32 points, with 24 of those points coming in the second half and 15 of those in the deciding fourth quarter. Seven of those points, (a 3, a flagrant foul free throw and three more free throws on a foul above the arc), came on a single possession. When the game was on the line, Clarkson took over. In the game after he nearly fought the entire Memphis Grizzlies roster with his fists, he fought the Cavaliers with his footwork, ability to draw fouls and his touch in the paint and from beyond the arc. In the process, the Jazz were able to fight back from a seven-point deficit with five minutes remaining.

“I was just being aggressive and trying to make something happen,” Clarkson said. “I saw what they were doing defensively, so once we kind of figured out how they were playing us, I just wanted to start being aggressive in the fourth quarter. Walker (Kessler) did a great job of screening for me, and we just started making shots as a team.”

Tuesday night represented a big win for the Jazz.

The victory pushes them to 21-23 on the season. It gets them back into 10th place in the Western Conference, which would be good for the final Play-In spot. And while it doesn’t erase the disappointment of losing seven of their previous eight games, including five consecutive games by a grand total of 15 points, it gets the Jazz back into the winning side of the column at a time where they need it the most.

Tuesday night begins what could be Utah’s most important stretch of the season. After half a season with logistically one of the most difficult schedules in the league, a schedule fraught with the most sets of back-to-backs in the NBA, seemingly road game after road game and difficult competition, Utah will have 11 of its next 13 games at home. There will be one back-to-back, Friday and Saturday against the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. There will be two one-off road games, one against Rudy Gobert and the Minnesota Timberwolves and the other against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Beyond that, the Jazz will have most of three weeks to sleep in their beds. They will have most of three weeks to play at home, with a seemingly normal schedule of actual days off. Because of this, the Jazz are going to have a chance to make a run.

More important than that, the NBA’s trade deadline looms at the direct end of this 13-game stretch, and the Jazz project to be a team that will have a lot of conversations with other teams around the league, whether or not they actually make a move. How the Jazz fare in this stretch probably won’t have a bearing on whatever move the front office decides to make. But, from the beginning of the season, Hardy and his roster fought proverbial tooth and nail to get into and stay in the playoff race. The Jazz were out of the playoff race for two days. And now, they are in the thick of it in the 10th spot. But they are a game and a half out of the sixth spot, which is an outright playoff spot. And they are only three games out of the fourth spot, which means a home court for the first round.

“It’s obviously good to get a win,” Hardy said. “I tell the guys all the time, winning is hard in the NBA. There are a lot of good teams in the league. Losing five straight games by a total of 15 points, those are tough results. But we just have to keep going and keep plugging away at it.”

Clarkson has been in the middle of Utah’s success all season long. His evolution from being a sixth man to being an all-around offensive force has been a significant surprise and development, especially at the age of 30. But, like many of his teammates, Clarkson has used this season as a platform to prove himself. Proves he can be more than a bench player. Prove he’s a guy who is still in the prime of his career. And proves he can be a leader.

Like the Jazz as a whole, Clarkson hasn’t been perfect. Sometimes he turns the ball over. The penchant for taking bad shots is sometimes there. That being said, the product has been far more good than bad. And on a night that was supposed to be Mitchell’s, Clarkson provided a happy ending for the Jazz and their fan base.

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(Photo of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)


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