Western Conference playoff seeding is all the talk on Dallas Mavericks’ Twitter. While the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers rapidly fall from home-court advantage, the Dallas Mavericks gathered themselves as a legitimate playoff threat.
Following a surprisingly strong finish versus the NBA’s hottest team in the Utah Jazz, Dallas sits in a favorable position. Dallas, with fork and knife in hand, sees its dinner in plain sight as the six-seed.
When January hit the Mavericks like a snowball full to the face, clouds of doubt consumed fans and critics alike. However, after an underwhelming 8-12 start to the season, the Mavericks have since recovered with convincing wins versus potential playoff contenders.
Perhaps the commotion surrounding the losing record had more to do with multiple players missing games due to COVID19 safety protocols than it did with any accusations of Rick Carlisle losing the offense. I digress.
Despite the world-is-falling narrative seemingly engulfing the Dallas Mavericks, the doubted team confidently responded with a 20-9 record.
The wins during the stretch: a clutch performance versus the Golden State Warriors; twice over the Boston Celtics, with the first as a step-back 3 showcase at the hands of Luka Doncic; besting the Brooklyn Nets; double-digit victory over the Denver Nuggets; Dallas held the Los Angeles Clippers to 89 points; 40-point blowout over the Portland Trail Blazers; beating the Jazz without Porzingis in the lineup.
Teams are past the point of assessing season goals at this juncture of the season. While many coaches display poker faces in their lineup and rotation decisions, the makeup of rosters rendered solidified following the trade deadline. Surely, franchises with playoff hopes already circled the teams in their crosshairs.
Utah Jazz vs. Dallas Mavericks
While the victory over the best team in the NBA inspired immaculate vibes, Dallas didn’t exactly throw Utah off its rhythm. Although the Utah Jazz shot a horrid 27 percent from deep, the beat wasn’t quite lost with 27 free throw attempts. The Jazz took the series 2-1, with the Mavericks two-stepping on the Jazz in the last outing.
Players don’t take much stock in the Utah Jazz, both as an enticing team to select on NBA 2K or even play with in real life. LeBron James and Kevin Durant made light of the franchise’s past greats. Then, both All-Star captains elected to pick Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last.
LeBron explains why he didn’t draft the Utah Jazz players until last pic.twitter.com/0MMJ20Pkps
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) March 5, 2021
However, until the Luka Doncic-led Mavericks excel past the first round, such a mentality can’t enter the locker room. James and Durant, with multiple rings on their hands, earned their hardened disposition. While NBA Twitter and the superstars of the league find the Jazz easy targets to ridicule, taking the best team in the NBA lightly doesn’t match the Mavericks MO.
To genuinely understand the matchup, first, you must look at the data collected in the regular season. While the Mavericks suffered from the consequences of COVID19, Utah also had health issues. Mitchell missed the first two contests; impressively, Utah managed to win both games in spite of missing its leading scorer to concussion protocol.
Tales of the Tape
The three injury-spotted games in the regular season series, as previously alluded, don’t illuminate the two teams’ full story. However, it’s disrespectful to the players who suited up to disregard the production absolutely.
Utah looked every bit of the top-tier team in the first two meetings. In the first game, Dallas failed to defend a team without its most dynamic scorer. Sixth-Man favorite Jordan Clarkson brought the heat to Dallas by dropping 30 points. Rudy Gobert, never confused for an aggressive scorer, attempted 20 shots, registering 29 points.
In short, three Jazz players dropped 20+ points on a team failing to stay afloat against a formidable opponent. Although Dallas held Utah to 16 points in the final quarter, the noble-but-late effort came following a blistering 100 points in the first three periods.
Change is good
Although the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns mastered the pick and roll, the John Stockon-Karl Malone Utah Jazz laid the blueprint for future offenses. Never do you think of the Jazz as a floor-spreading team. Despite the booming 3-point era in the mid-2010s, the conservative Jazz franchise didn’t join the club.
Historically, the Jazz hasn’t significantly utilized the 3-point shot. The last time the Jazz finished in the top 5 of 3-point attempts Stockton and Malone weren’t in the NBA yet. The season: 1983-84; the rank: First. The evolution, although late in the seemingly disconnected world of Utah, is underway.
For a team not far removed from its 2014-2015 season, producing the most efficient offense per 100 possessions, largely thanks to the 3-point shot, Dallas was rendered ineffective versus the Jazz’s unbelievable shooting on January 29. The Jazz’s perimeter shooting came as the Godfather 2 to the Mavericks’ Godfather.
Despite the Mavericks’ historic contributions to the greatest offenses of all time, it only produced a 7-seed standing. Utah took the original and enhanced it to elite proportions. In relevance to the two wins versus Dallas, Utah shot a remarkable 40 percent on 89 attempts.
Not to credit Charles Barkley’s disdain for today’s barrage of outside shots, but the 3-point game spelled the difference in the two Western Conference teams’ final meeting of the regular season.
Before the Jazz and Mavericks faced off in early April, the NBA’s hottest team marched into Dallas with a nine-game winning streak. Ironically, Utah’s fiery streak would soon feel the forest fire of Doncic and Co’s perimeter shooting.
After 12 minutes of basketball, Utah and Dallas played it close. Without Porzingis in the lineup, Rudy Gobert’s opportunity to feast presented itself. However, the first quarter didn’t play out as predicted. 1-time NBA All-Star Mike Conley had a 3-point fest converting 3-4 baskets from deep.
Other than Conley’s burst from the perimeter, the Jazz’s scorching fire regressed into the last drag of a weakly lit cigarette. By the game’s end, the NBA’s best team mustered an abysmal 27 percent from 3-point territory.
Donovan Mitchell laid a Utah-sized egg shooting-wise going bucketless from deep. Meanwhile, Dallas registered 46 percent of its 3-point baskets on a whopping 49 attempts. The Jazz made an effort late with a 5-11 3-point shooting effort in the fourth quarter but lost regardless.
Theme of the series
Despite holding a league’s best win-loss record, the Utah Jazz trigger questions in a playoff format. Going back to the league’s lack of respect for the Utah Jazz duo, Gobert’s game comes into question regarding getting played out of a playoff series.
In the 2020 playoffs, the Jazz was one Mike Conley shot away from advancing to the semi-finals. Leading up to that breath-taking moment, the Jazz laid a foundation of hope with remarkable play, almost taking out the Denver Nuggets.
Mitchell averaged 36 points while the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray kept close at 31. Ultimately, the Jazz lost after leading the series with a 3-1 record. The image of a physically and emotionally drained Mitchell laying on the court, face buried from view, spoke volumes of the totality of the 7-game series.
However, despite the outstanding guard play. It’s the frontcourt action that stands as the x-factor of the series. Nikola Jokic and Gobert had a Godzilla versus King Kong level matchup. Gobert defended Jokic to the best of his ability. However, he lacked the scoring burst of his positional counterpart.
For all of the smoke surrounding Kristaps Porzingis, the fire in the All-Bubble center must ignite for the Dallas Mavericks to have a slight chance in eliminating the Jazz. This is why Porzingis must make his best Jokic impression to outscore Gobert while finding a way to deter Gobert from the boards.
Making sense of the Gobert-Porzingis matchup
When dissecting the Porzingis-Gobert matchup, consider adding a few asterisks. Firstly, the discrepancy between the two teams in production provided Quin Snyder the opportunity to sit Gobert for significant stretches. Another twist in the matchup, as alluded to earlier, Porzingis didn’t play in the recent outing.
Although Gobert didn’t find himself glued to Porzingis in their two matchups, he did succeed in blocking the Latvian-born center on two attempts at the rim. Players steadily try the Utah center at the rim, but it typically doesn’t end in their favor.
When not suctioned to the paint area in the three games, Dorian Finney-Smith had Gobert’s attention for 16 possessions on the perimeter. It’s clear the Jazz’s coaching staff has no desire to push their elite rim-protecting All-Star from his comfort zone. However, if the Mavericks utilize its three-point shooting in a 5-out system, Gobert will find himself in compromising situations.
X-Factor of the X-Factor
Yes, the ultimate X-Factor is the three-point shooting, but not solely in converting the perimeter shot. Converting shots is vital, but even more so imperative, whoever Gobert guards must keep the rim-gravitated center guessing.
Although Porzingis playing closer to the rim bodes well for the Mavericks’ offense, it’s not sustainable if Finney-Smith fails to detain Gobert on the perimeter. In the last contest versus the Jazz, Finney-Smith converted seven baskets on Gobert, four of which from beyond the perimeter.
Essentially, Porzingis’ success correlates with Finney-Smith, thus nullifying the root of the Jazz’s defense in Gobert. Without an elite defender on the wing, teams will take advantage of Utah’s roster build. Although the Jazz’s defense ranks fourth in defensive rating, a vulnerability exists on that end of the basketball.
Playoff basketball forces teams to play their full hand. Unfortunately, for Utah, after ridding the paint of Gobert, Joe Ingles, and undersized forward, Royce O’Neale doesn’t quite finish the potential royal flush of a championship-contending defense.
One more key to the series
While the Finney-Smith and Porzingis component weighs heaviest, a few other possibilities lead to a Mavericks’ upset. Let’s swiftly knock one key out: Dallas having the talents of a constant physics law-bender, basketball version of Magneto, in Luka Doncic.
Mitchell demands respect from defenders. Despite contrasting opinions from a certain Hall of Fame player, Mitchell has a 30+ point postseason average on his resume in a series that was one bounce away from Utah advancing to the next round.
The thought of Mitchell magnifying Gobert’s game in the restricted area offense with Porzingis as collateral damage suggests a long series for Dallas. Despite the critical commentary surrounding the defensive philosophy, utilizing drop defense will pay off in stretches by keeping close to Gobert.
The Mavericks defense didn’t strictly follow the defensive philosophy guarding Mitchell in early April. With defenders constantly clawing their way into meeting Mitchell at the perimeter. However, predictably, Mitchell’s game will gravitate towards the rim during the postseason.
Every playoff matchup presents risks, picking the lesser of evils is up to Carlisle’s discretion. Forcing Mitchell and Gobert into giving up plays at the rim for 3s will put a significant amount of pressure on Utah’s role players. Take away the rim, and theoretically, Dallas will keep their players out of foul trouble.
All stats appear courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and Instatsport.com.