Plenty in reserve: Cavs’ Clarkson thriving in bench role

Jordan Clarkson has thrived coming off the bench for coach Larry Drew in a bounce-back season.

Every basketball coach at every level has told the players coming off their bench the same thing — “It’s not who starts the game, it’s who finishes the game.”

Jordan Clarkson played in his 94th regular-season game as a Cleveland Cavalier on Monday night against the Toronto Raptors and he began it from the same perch he did the first 93 — from a seat on the bench at Quicken Loans Arena.

However, the 26-year-old, six-year veteran says he’s not bothered by being the first player off coach Larry Drew’s bench. In fact, he’s thrived in filling that role.

“I just try to do my job. I know what I’m here for and what I have to do,” Clarkson told reporters before Monday’s game. “I’m taking the game and being a spark off the bench. That’s my job and that’s what I’m paid to do.”

Clarkson has done his job extremely well. Heading into the game against the Raptors, Clarkson was averaging a career-high 17.0 points — second-best on the Cavs behind only Kevin Love — along with 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 26.9 minutes in 65 games, shooting 44.7 percent from the field, 34.3 percent from deep and a career-best 84.2 percent from the free-throw line.

“I’m definitely confident in what I’m doing,” Clarkson said. “I’ve been coming off the bench for three years now. I’ve kind of fallen into that role as a bench scorer.”

He remained true to form Monday night against Toronto, posting 14 points, two boards and three dimes in 31 minutes, hitting 5-of-11 shots, including 3-of-7 from deep as the Cavaliers crushed the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, 126-101. He finished with a plus-minus of plus-18, matching Brandon Knight for best on the team.

Clarkson had a solid season for the Cavaliers a year ago after being acquired at the trade deadline, averaging 12.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 22.6 minutes in 28 games. He is sure to receive votes in the balloting for NBA Sixth Man of the Year.

The playoffs, however, were a stark contrast. Playing in the postseason for the first time, doing so on a team that went to the Finals for the fourth consecutive season, Clarkson wilted. He averaged only 4.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.7 assists in 15.1 minutes in 19 games, with a shooting line of 30.1/23.9/83.3.

How low did Clarkson sink? In Games 3 and 4 of the Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Clarkson’s number wasn’t even called, registering two DNP-CDs.

“Last year, people had a lot of misjudgments because I had a few bad games in the playoffs and stuff like that,” Clarkson said. “My whole thing was to come back and prove people wrong and come here and attack it like I do.”

Drew appreciates Clarkson’s bounce-back season and his contributions during the Cavaliers’ season of struggle.

“He is who he is. He’s a scorer. He can score in bunches,” Drew told reporters.

“I continue to challenge him (defensively). Being a scorer is going to get you points, but you’ve got to get something done at the other end, too.”