The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell has his best game; Jordan Clarkson contributes on defense to win vs. Bucks

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 107-95 win against the Milwaukee Bucks from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Donovan Mitchell’s best game of the year

To be sure, this was Donovan Mitchell’s best game of the year. He scored 28 points on 10-18 shooting, adding four rebounds and two assists to the tally as well. I also thought it was a fairly revealing game for Mitchell: it was very up and down, and success came and went by the virtue of his own decision making.

He started the game with three 3-pointers, part of a hot stretch for the Jazz offensively. The pull-up three is a weapon he can use often, especially when the defense is going under the screen on him.

But then came a lull when he missed six straight shots, and added two turnovers. At the end of this stretch, he started doing something a little weird: he was actually choosing to attack Giannis Antetokounmpo defensively, rather than the other four much more mediocre Bucks defenders.

(insert video here)

I think I understand what Mitchell’s trying to do here: at this point of the game, Antetokounmpo has three fouls, and one more would put him in foul trouble and mean an extended sit for their MVP. But because the league’s new point of emphasis makes it very difficult to draw fouls out of thin air, I don’t think attacking him in isolation is wise — especially because he’s such a solid defender, with incredible length to boot.

When Mitchell attacked everyone else, though, he had a ton of success. The Bucks were largely trapping screens — but if Grayson Allen is guarding you, who needs a screen?

He really carried the Jazz through the fourth quarter offensively as a result, and had the best night of his season. I think you could argue he was calling his number a little bit too frequently, but when he’s this efficient, it’s really, really hard to complain.

2. Jordan Clarkson’s unusual night

On one hand, Jordan Clarkson’s night didn’t look very impressive. 15 points on 17 shots? Blech.

Maybe worst of all, his consecutive games with a three streak ended at 99 games — just one short of triple-digits! It’s going to be extremely difficult for another bench player to ever match that. The streak mostly highlights how Clarkson’s always willing to shoot. Since the streak’s began, he’s shot at least three 3s in every game, and very frequently more. Honestly, that’s a good thing for the Jazz, especially in the half-court.

But I’ll say this: Clarkson made three defensive plays in the course of a couple of minutes at the end of his stint on the floor that, in many ways, sealed this game for Utah.

On this first one, Clarkson’s trailing Allen coming off the screen. But he hustles to get back in the play, to defend him through the drive, and then contests the shot without fouling despite Allen’s original advantage. It’s great!

You remember this, if you watched the game: Clarkson just pokes the ball away from Justin Robinson for two easy points.

And then this one’s really interesting: Clarkson leaves his man wide open to get Antetokounmpo to give up the ball late in the shot-clock. He can afford to do that because Robinson’s a poor shooter, and so I think it’s part of the Jazz’s scheme to show late pressure. And getting the steal as Antetokounmpo is making the pass is good athleticism, too.

I thought Quin Snyder wrapped it up well: “He can really score, but he wants to win more than he wants to score.”

I’m not sure you would have always said that during Clarkson’s career, but on the Jazz’s version, I agree. He’s certainly not known as a player who can carry himself through rough shooting stretches through his defensive play, but that’s exactly what he did tonight.

3. Hassan Whiteside, a revelation

He’s been so, so, so good. A player who got DNP-CDs to end the season for the Sacramento Kings last year has been phenomenal for the Jazz.

Once again tonight, Whiteside was a large reason the Jazz won: they outscored the Bucks by 11 in his 15 minutes, thanks to allowing them to score just 71 points per 100 possessions with him in the game.

The rim protection has just been absurd: he’s defending 7 shots per game within five feet, and opponents are shooting just 39% on those usually-high-percentage shots around the rim. That will increase, because honestly it would be the best mark in recorded history if it continued for a full season... but still, wow.

Bobby Portis is a scoring threat: he made his name in this year’s playoffs. And Whiteside just erases him on these two attempts:

On that first one, Whiteside is just playing straight-up defense: he’s pretty far away, actually, so no drive is going to work, either. But as soon as Portis pulls up, Whiteside pounces. It’s honestly incredible.

And on the second one, he’s worried about the 3-second violation (honestly, a little too worried — in reality you probably get five seconds down there before the refs notice, especially in the fourth quarter). So he’s pretty out of position when Portis gets the ball, but he just erases the floater. Honestly, the first time I watched it, I thought he was baiting Portis to take the shot.

We are very much in the Whiteside honeymoon period, a phenomenon fans of other Whiteside teams have reported as well. They report that he looks very good at first, and then the level of play starts to dip, and frustrations start to creep in. This is his pattern. I understand your reluctance to trust Whiteside.

But eh, it’s a contract year? Maybe fighting for his NBA life, the Jazz are getting excellent Whiteside? Maybe Rudy Gobert pushing him or Quin Snyder teaching him has fundamentally changed him? I don’t know! But what I’ve seen so far has been truly very, very good, and a heck of a return on a minimum contract.