DALLAS — The formula the Dallas Mavericks used to pull off their series-evening 110-104 win in Monday’s Game 2 felt painfully familiar to the Utah Jazz.
Without injured superstar Luka Doncic, the Mavs opened the floor by playing five-out offense, consistently exploiting the Jazz’s shoddy perimeter defense to create a plethora of open 3-point looks. It was a script quite similar to the one that the LA Clippers used last year to reel off four straight wins after losing Kawhi Leonard to a torn ACL, eliminating the Jazz in the second round.
“The good thing is it’s Game 2,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. “It’s not Game 6 with the series on the line. We’ve got a lot of time to watch film, to adjust, all of us individually and collectively to see the things we can do better and go from there.”
One of the primary problems the Jazz need to solve is figuring out whether anybody on the roster is capable of staying in front of Mavs point guard Jalen Brunson. He had a career night with 41 points and five assists, becoming the first player in franchise history to score that many points without committing a turnover in a playoff game.
The constant penetration off the dribble by Brunson and guard Spencer Dinwiddie played a major role in the Mavs breaking the franchise postseason record by making 22 3s on 47 attempts. Time after time, Gobert was forced to retreat into the paint to protect the rim, leading to kick-out passes that led to wide-open 3s. The biggest beneficiary was Mavs reserve center Maxi Kleber, who scored 25 points on 8-of-11 3-point shooting.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 17 of the Mavs’ made 3s were uncontested, the most by any team over the past 10 postseasons. That included seven of Kleber’s eight 3s, a potentially series-shifting performance for a shooter who had been in an extended slump.
“Every time I was open, I shot the ball,” Kleber said. “We analyzed how they play defense and where the looks are coming from. You’ve got to be ready to shoot and just let it fly.”
Kleber shot only 18.8% from 3-point range from the All-Star break until the end of the regular season, and he was hampered by ankle soreness for much of that time, sitting out the final four games to recover. He made almost as many 3s in Monday’s win as he did in all of March, when he was 9-of-51 from long distance.
“The beauty is his teammates trust him,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “He has to shoot them, because he can shoot, and today he made them. We’re going to need him. No matter if he makes or misses, it just creates space.”
The performances by Brunson and Kleber conjured up memories of the havoc wreaked by a couple of Clippers, Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann, while eliminating the Jazz.
Jackson was the point guard who rose to the occasion when pushed into more of a primary offensive role due to a star’s injury, scoring 27 points in the series finale. Mann was the unanticipated 3-point sniper, going 7-of-10 from 3-point range during a career-best 39-point performance.
Jazz star Donovan Mitchell acknowledged the similarities, stating that the Jazz’s biggest problem is on-ball perimeter defense. But Mitchell noted one major difference from that series. The Jazz are healthy, unlike then, when he was hobbled by a sprained ankle and point guard Mike Conley missed all but the series finale due to a strained hamstring.
“I don’t really look at it as, ‘Oh man, here we go again, same thing as last year,'” said Mitchell, who led the Jazz with 34 points on 13-of-30 shooting. “I look at is as, we can go do what we’re supposed to do. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due — Jalen had a hell of a game, Kleber had a hell of a game. We can make it easier on the guy guarding the ball by shifting.
“I don’t think any of us are looking at it like, ‘Ah, like it’s last year all over again,’ because we’re healthy. We can do this.”
The Mavs, who felt like an off shooting day cost them a Game 1 win, feel confident that they can compete in the series with or without Doncic.
Sources told ESPN that there is hope Doncic will play at some point in the series, but it would be premature to predict when he will be ready to return from the strained left calf he suffered during the April 10 regular-season finale. Kidd said Monday morning that Doncic “is definitely going in the right direction,” and the two-time first-team All-NBA selection went through an extended pregame shooting workout without putting much stress on the calf by pushing off of that leg.
“I know he’s dying to get out there soon, but he’s got to take his time,” Brunson said. “I know he’s doing everything in his power to not let his team down, but he has to make the decision that’s best for him. Not necessarily knowing where he is [in the recovery process], but I just know that he’s a competitor and he wants to be out there. We’re trying to hold it down for him.”