Jalen Brunson didn’t mince words when asked about participating in his first NBA playoff series.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “Nothing else to be said. Let’s just go.”
One of the Dallas Mavericks’ backup guards, Brunson can be excused for being on high alert when it comes to the NBA playoffs. After all, when the Mavs qualified for the postseason last year for the first time since 2016, Brunson was relegated to spectator status for that best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
That’s because Brunson got hurt on the first possession of a Feb. 22, 2020, contest in Atlanta, and subsequently underwent season-ending surgery to address an injury to the labrum of his right shoulder. While the Mavs were losing their series to the Clippers in six games, Brunson was stewing because he was unable to help his teammates.
“We were right there,” Brunson said. “We had our opportunities.”
This year, not only do the Mavs hope to take advantage of their opportunities when they open the playoffs this Saturday in LA. But Brunson is happy that he’ll be an integral part of the picture when the Mavs will – again – play the Clippers in the opening round of the playoffs.
“It’s going to be fun,” Brunson said. “I’m just really excited that I can be a part of it and hopefully contribute.
“I think we have a great group of guys and I think we can do a special thing together. We just have to really lock in.”
Brunson certainly has been locked in this season. In 57 games last year – including 16 starts — the former Villanova Wildcat star averaged 8.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 17.9 minutes, and shot 46.6 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from behind the 3-point line.
In 68 games this season – including 12 starts – those numbers for Brunson improved to 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 25 minutes. And he shot a robust 52.3 percent from the floor and a healthy 40.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
As they approach their second straight playoff appearance against the Clippers, the Mavs will do so knowing they’ve come a mighty long way from Feb. 4 when they were 9-14 and in 14th place in the 15-team Western Conference following a devastating 147-116 loss at home to the Golden State Warriors. As of now, Brunson takes solace in the fact that the Mavs are one of the hottest teams in the NBA with 12 wins in their last 16 games.
“I think it’s really important for everyone to be in the right mental space and get to do what they’ve been doing to be successful,” Brunson said. “We’ve got to keep doing the things that we’ve done in the past.
“We can’t start thinking of new things to do and we can’t be complacent with doing the same things over and over and over again. We just got to keep being who we are, staying tough-minded and just try to figure out ways to get better.”
When the Mavs looked in the mirror and wondered what went wrong up until the first week of February, Brunson already knew better days were just beyond the horizon. He knew that period of time was just a teaching tool and an aberration the Mavs wouldn’t see again anytime soon.
“We knew we could bounce back from that,” Brunson said. “I think it’s just constantly sticking together.”
And because the Mavs constantly stuck together, they were able to finish the regular season with a 42-30 record and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference after finishing last season with a 43-32 record and the No. 7 seed. To that, Brunson acknowledged that the Mavs were able to overcome more than their share of adversity.
“We fought through a lot,” he said. “The (February snow) storm. The Covid. Everything’s been different.
“And we were still able to be a higher seed and we were still able to have a better record percentage-wise while starting 9-14. So a lot of adversity, the guys have stuck together, and we believe. That’s really a good feeling going into the playoffs.”
Indeed, the Mavs entered the playoffs in the bubble in Orlando last season with a 57.3 winning percentage in the regular season and this year that number inched up to 58.3 percent. In the meantime, Game 1 of the series against the Clippers will be Brunson’s first postseason action since he led Villanova coach Jay Wright – he was named Sunday to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — to their second NCAA title in three years in 2018.
“I was able to learn a lot from Coach Wright,” Brunson said. “I was able to learn a lot from my (Villanova) teammates and the leaders that I had when I was a freshman, and I was able to lead a lot of younger guys when I was a junior.
“So that three-year run that we had was pretty special and something I’ll never forget, and it really did help me become the player I am today.”
Brunson now hopes this upcoming playoff run for the Mavs will also be pretty special in addition to something he’ll never forget.