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Earning the opportunity: Even though Jordan Clarkson missed two big shots down the stretch against the Nuggets, his 37 points gave the Jazz a chance at the end

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson reacts after hitting a 3-point basket against the Denver Nuggets during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Twice in the last 65 seconds of Thursday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets Jordan Clarkson missed shots that would have made it a one-possession affair.

To judge Clarkson or the Utah Jazz by those two shots would be a complete mischaracterization of what happened in the Jazz’s 106-100 late-night loss to the Nuggets.

A more fair assessment would be that the Jazz were out of sorts from the opening tip and the biggest reason they were even in the game at all down the stretch was because of Clarkson, who scored 24 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter.

“He brought us back in the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said afterward. “If he makes that shot it seems like he’s being aggressive and that’s what I want. He was terrific tonight.”

From the outside there were some mixed reviews of what transpired in the home stretch of the game. Should Clarkson be the one taking those shots? Why didn’t he try to get the ball to someone else?

From inside the Jazz locker room, there was nothing but praise and gratitude for Clarkson.

“We wouldn’t have been there without him, he had a different look in his eye,” Donovan Mitchell said. “He was pretty bummed that he didn’t hit those shots at the end but we’ll take that shot 10 times out of 10.”

Clarkson was not only the person the Jazz wanted taking the shots down the stretch, he was the player that had earned the right to take whatever shot he wanted on Thursday.

The Jazz started off the night with seven first-quarter turnovers, so right off the bat things didn’t look great.

Then, as the game went on and the Jazz corrected some of their sloppier mistakes, the Nuggets impeded their ability to run their more familiar actions and when that started to change the flow of the offense, the Jazz were forced into more isolation plays.

Problem was that the Jazz’s most potent scorer, Mitchell, could not get his shots to fall. He finished the night with four points on a 1-of-12 outing for just his second single-digit scoring effort of the season.

Meanwhile Clarkson put on the second-highest scoring performance of his career, behind only a 42-point night on Feb. 13 of last year while with the Cavaliers.

“You can always be critical of a decision here and a decision there but sometimes when you’re critical, guys make those shots,” Snyder said. “He battled his tail off and he was aggressive, I thought he was really good.”

That has seemed to be the case with Clarkson throughout his career. When he’s on, everything looks bright and cheery with talk about how much potential he has as a scorer.

But, when things are off, the critiques always come back to Clarkson being a one-trick pony who is only out to get his own numbers and can’t operate within a system.

To that, Snyder is ready to rewrite the narrative.

“I love him, I love him. Write it down. I love him,” the Jazz head coach said of Clarkson. “Sometimes a system needs to be malleable. He’s unselfish, he attacks the rim, he gets to the line. If the system is defense, he’s embraced that, and I think he’ll continue to learn.”

Snyder completely rejects the idea that Clarkson is anything other than an unselfish player who still, at age 27, has a ton of upside and untapped potential.

Over the past couple of weeks, Snyder said he’s continued to have conversations with Clarkson about the need to be instinctive when he has the ball.

“When he gets the ball, catch and shoot, rip it and drive it,” Snyder said. “And, he has the ability that when he does drive it, if someone cuts him off, to make a play.”

The Nuggets had done their best to take the Jazz out of the game on Thursday. The pick-and-roll wasn’t working like it usually does for the Jazz, their kick-out actions weren’t effective, Mitchell couldn’t buy a bucket, and it all looked bleak after the Nuggets went on a 27-1 run at one point.

Instinctively, just as Snyder had asked him to, Clarkson found opportunity in the isolation plays, went 7 of 12 from 3-point range, and brought the Jazz back to have a fighting chance.

The fact that he missed two shots in the final 65 seconds, doesn’t tell the story, and it doesn’t give him the credit he deserves.