Ian Clark’s NBA education accelerated during his two seasons with Golden State, often playing key minutes as a reserve for a team that reached the Finals twice, capped by winning a championship last spring. During that two-year stint with the Warriors, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound combo guard was best known as a perimeter shooter, something that showed up again Saturday at Portland. In his playoff debut with New Orleans, Clark made both of his three-point attempts, highlighted by a gigantic wing trey that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 2:28 remaining.
To pigeonhole Clark as merely just a spot-up three-point threat, however, would be to overlook several contributions the fifth-year NBA veteran has made for New Orleans. Clark averaged the seventh-most minutes in the regular season among currently-available Pelicans players, yet it was no surprise to see the 27-year-old on the floor in crunch time of Game 1. It’s a role he’s filled frequently all season, one factor behind why New Orleans has been one of the NBA’s best teams in close games. Whether it’s a timely shot, pesky defense, or a hard-nosed rebound, Clark has been depended on to deliver key plays for a Pelicans team that’s also been extremely successful on the road, now 25-17 in ’17-18.
“He’s earned that,” third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said of Clark’s common playing time in tight, late-game situations. “It’s great for us, because I’m very comfortable with him, E’Twaun (Moore) or any of those guys at the end of the game. We felt like the movement that (Clark) has, the cutting that he has, might open up other avenues. That’s why we played him down the stretch.”
“He’s comfortable being in these situations, obviously from the (Golden State) team that he was with,” said Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, himself an ultra-clutch performer in fourth quarters this season. “That’s what he does. To have him out there playing comfortable is huge for us.”
Rajon Rondo, who’s served as a mentor for Clark and other younger players on the New Orleans roster, has taken note of Clark’s physicality and aggressiveness on defense. The Pelicans were underwhelming on defense prior to the All-Star break, ranking No. 19 in the NBA in efficiency, but zoomed all the way up to fifth in the 25 post-break games. In Game 1 against Portland’s feared guard combo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Pelicans held them to 13/41 shooting. The Trail Blazers finished at just 38 percent as a team.
“You know people want to talk about the way he shoots the ball because he came through (Golden State), but to me, what stands out about Ian is his defense, the way he pursues the ball,” Rondo said. “He keeps pressure on those guards and never dies on screens. Having him, especially in this series against two of the most dynamic guards in the league, it’s big. He’s good for (scoring) 13 to 15 points a game, but at the same time, I’m more proud of his defense, the way he’s been playing at that end of the floor.”
Clark, who tallied 10 points against the Trail Blazers in Game 1, made arguably the Pelicans’ biggest basket of the night, catching a pass from Holiday and taking advantage of Lillard drifting too far away to contest the shot.
“It was a broken play a little bit,” Clark described. “(Anthony Davis) drove, kind of got the ball stripped, passed the ball to Jrue in the corner and Jrue penetrated and just hit me with an extra pass, and I just had to knock it down.”
Plays like that will earn you an appearance in the highlights, but teammates are most appreciative of some of the intangibles Clark has shown in ’17-18. During the final two-plus minutes Saturday, Clark also gave a rugged foul on Jusuf Nurkic to prevent the 7-footer from converting at point-blank range, then altered a Nurkic layup attempt that led to Nurkic misfiring.
“He’s definitely in the fight,” Rondo said of Clark. “He’s a scrappy guy who plays with a lot of heart. Whatever the situation or the guy he’s facing, he’s going to bring it. He’s not afraid to take an elbow or grab a rebound or two.”
“He’s gritty,” Holiday said. “He’s crafty defensively. A lot of people probably didn’t see that, only because he was with Golden State and the players they have. But his grittiness and toughness definitely fits our style and what we need.”