It may not have been a true must-win situation for the Mavericks Monday night. But it wasn’t far from it.
And with no Luka Magic to be found, they settled for Jalen Magic.
And Maxi Magic.
A sensational overall performance and a franchise-best playoff shooting exhibition from 3-point range made up for the absence of their superstar point guard as Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber powered them back into their first-round playoff series with a 110-104 victory over the Utah Jazz.
The best-of-seven series now is knotted at a win apiece with things shifting to Utah on Thursday for Game 3.
Brunson had a phenomenal night with a career-best 41 points, including two free throws with 33.4 seconds left that iced it at 109-102.
And he got some major help along the way. Kleber had a lights-out shooting night with eight 3-pointers and 25 points. He joined Jason Terry (nine) as the only Mavericks with eight or more 3-pointers in a playoff game.
The Mavericks nailed 22 3-pointers, most in any playoff game in franchise history. They also committed just three turnovers, a franchise record-low.
And, most importantly, they ensured that this series will get stretched out to at least five games, giving Luka Dončić more time to recuperate from his strained left calf muscle that has sidelined him for the first two games.
“Big time, big time, big time,” Kleber said. “I mean, everybody came together. We fought. It was just an overall fight. JB had an amazing game, but the whole team came together. Everybody believed.”
Kleber’s performance bordered on the incredible given that he had sat out the final four games of the regular season with ankle soreness and he was shooting 18.8 percent from 3-point range after the All-Star break.
It was a perfect sidekick performance to Brunson’s game, which was nothing short of Luka-like. His monster night included 15-of-25 shots and he also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists, doing a pretty fair Luka impersonation.
“We needed this win,” Brunson said in his postgame interview on NBA TV. These fans needed this win. The mentality stays the same whether he (Luka) is on the floor or not.
“This is great, but we got a long way to go. This is a great win for us, something that we can build off of. But we got a lot of improvement that we need to have happen.”
And while their offense obviously perked up with four players making three or more 3-pointers, their defense remained solid. Utah’s 104 points were only five more than they scored in Game 1 and nearly 10 below their regular season average.
It produced a feelgood night that had the sellout crowd rocking at AAC.
“We know that (we need) to buy time for Luka to come back,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who added 17 points and six assists. “It’s not rocket science. We want to have him back as quickly and safely and healthy as possible. But we’re also focused on winning the series regardless.
“As I said after Game 1, there’s reason for optimism and there’s still reason for optimism.”
Especially because the Mavericks were able to win their first home playoff game since 2015. If ever a 1-1 split at home felt like reason for positivity, getting it without Dončić should do it.
“We did what we had to do and that was to win tonight,” coach Jason Kidd said. “Game 1 was over. There’s nothing we could do. Now we get ready for Game 3. It’s a hostile environment and they play well at home.
“We have to stay together and we’ve shown that because after Game 1 it’s easy to go separate ways. But we’ve been saying it all season, after bad performances, we tend to bounce back. And there’s nothing different. Now we have to try to find a way to do what they did and that’s win one game.”
Duplicating Monday’s effort and execution would be a good step. The Mavericks were spot-on in a lot of areas from start to finish.
The Mavericks had trailed by 10 points in the third quarter, but Kleber’s seventh and eighth 3-pointers of the night put the Mavericks up 102-98 with 3:40 to go.
The Jazz got it back to 104-102, but when Brunson drove and whipped a pass out of the paint to Dorian Finney-Smith in the corner, it could not have been a better spot for Finney-Smith. His favorite spot on the court led to the 3-pointer that made it 107-102 with 2:24 to go.
The Jazz then missed four consecutive scoring opportunities as the Mavericks’ defense stiffened. And the free throws by Brunson clinched it.
This clearly was Brunson’s night. He even got some “MVP” chants as the final seconds were running off the clock.
As always, Brunson funneled the credit to his teammates. He seemed to be taking good notes from Luka in that regard.
But like everybody else, Brunson knows the importance of this win, particularly in regard to Luka.
“I know he obviously wants to be out there,” Brunson said. “He’s dying to get out there soon. But he’s got to take his time. He’s doing everything in his power to not let his team.
“I just know he’s a competitor and wants to be out there. We’re just trying to hold it down for him.”
Mission accomplished in Game 2.