In a span of three days on the road back in January, the Dallas Mavericks were badly beaten by the Utah Jazz, losing by 12 and 19 points, respectively. And the games weren’t that close.
On Monday, the Mavs decided they weren’t going to take it any more.
Fueled by an aggressive style while matched against the best and hottest team in the NBA, the Mavs played one of their most efficient and dominant games of the season as they overpowered the Jazz, 111-103, at American Airlines Center.
The victory was the season-high fifth in a row for the Mavs, who increased their record to 28-21 while also snapping Utah’s nine-game winning streak. They out-bullied the Jazz, whose NBA-best record dropped to 38-12.
Coach Rick Carlisle said before the game they talked about former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and his hit-first mentality paving the way to his many victories. On cue, the Mavs struck the Jazz early and often, and repeatedly whacked them upside the head to the point where the results wound up undeniably in Dallas’ favor.
“The last two times we played these guys we were the ones who got hit in the mouth and we knew we had to be the ones that were hitting (the Jazz in the mouth) tonight,” Carlisle said. “Our level of physical presence was much, much better just all the way across the board.
“I think that was the key to the game. They felt us the majority of the game.”
Even with center/forward Kristaps Porzingis sitting this one out and listed day-to-day with a sprained right wrist, the Mavs were not going to be denied. That was mainly because Luka Doncic (31 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) had his usual dominant game.
But it also was because the Mavs’ supporting cast left their mark by ganging up on the Jazz and making their trip to North Texas a frightful one.
“The key moment was, for me, the whole game,” said Doncic, who was 6-of-11 from 3-point territory. “The way we played defense, that was the key to the game.
“I think we played amazing defense today. On a team like Utah, which is very difficult to do, I think that was the key.”
When Dallas carried a commanding 87-69 lead into the fourth quarter, those 69 points represented the fewest the Jazz have scored after three quarters all season. In other words, the Jazz “felt” the Mavs on this night, it probably didn’t feel good for them.
“We knew that they got the best of us when we were in Utah,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who finished with 16 points and five boards. “So we just wanted to do a great job of coming out tonight being the aggressor and just keeping our foot on the gas pedal the whole entire game.
“We’re giving all of guys credit for just sticking with the game plan that the defensive coaches gave us, and we just made sure we did that in the game. With all that being said, it was a great win.”
The Mavs had this game circled on their calendar after the two blowouts occurred in Utah when Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson and Dwight Powell were just returning from being in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. In other words, the Mavs knew the Jazz didn’t see the real Mavs back in January.
Monday, they did.
“When you’ve got Covid your chest already hurts, so when you come back in Utah it was like the correct place to get back in shape,” said Finney-Smith, who poured in a season-high 23 points to go with six rebounds. “I knew I was going to get shots because I knew they were going to put (center) Rudy (Gobert) on me.
“Everybody on the team kind of knew Rudy was going to guard me too, so they were just saying, ‘Shoot it every time. If you shoot 15 shots, that’s OK.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I shot 12.’ “
Finney-Smith was 5-of-12 from downtown and the Mavs were 23-of-49 overall from 3-point land for a healthy 46.9 percent.
“He’s such an important part of our team,” Carlisle said of Finney-Smith. “Hey look, we needed his defense, his rebounding and his scoring. We were pretty sure they were going to put Gobert on him again at the beginning of the game and that was going to open up a lot of open threes.
“At halftime we just said, ‘Hey look, this is a heavyweight bout and we don’t care about stats. We’ve got to be fully committed with everything we’re doing.’ In the second half he stepped into them and hit big shot after big shot. He did everything tonight, including driving the ball and made free throws and guarded multiple positions.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz, who made an NBA-record 18 baskets from 3-point land during Saturday’s 46-point win over the Orlando Magic, managed just 12-of-44 shots from behind the 3-point stripe for a woeful 27.3 percent against the Mavs.
“The difference was we just came out and we were much more physical than we were the last time we played them,” Carlisle said. “That was a long time ago — light years ago — but we knew that we needed to play with a lot more presence, and we did that.
“The defensive belt tonight went to Nico Melli. His on and off defensive numbers were by far the best on the team. He was part of our improved physical disposition at the start of the game, so he’s the defensive belt winner.”
Also for the Mavs, Jalen Brunson (20 points) and Josh Richardson (17 points, five boards) helped Carlisle’s crew to tune out the Jazz and keep the Mavs afloat all night.
Thanks to nine points from Doncic and eight more from Richardson, the Mavs led, 27-25, after the first quarter and are now a perfect 19-0 this season when leading after the first period.
“They’ve been playing well of late,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “They’ve got players that are starting to have continuity, and the last time we played them that wasn’t the case.
“They had a number of guys that were out. (Maxi) Kleber, in particular, I think is a huge impact for them, and you can see Luka continuing to find his rhythm. They shoot the ball very well, they’re defending. All the little things that you do when you’re playing well. They’ve got a synergy right now and it makes them very, very difficult to defend.”
Even when the Jazz scored 19 points on their first seven possessions of the fourth quarter, the Mavs still led, 101-86, because the Mavs kept drilling one basket from downtown after another. Dallas’ lead swelled to 106-88 following a 3-pointer from Brunson and a basket inside the paint from Dwight Powell via a pass from Brunson less than five minutes into the fourth quarter.
And when Brunson scored on a drive and Doncic followed with a dagger 3-pointer,the Mavs were staring at a 111-96 lead with just 2:47 remaining in the game where Donovan Mitchell was limited to just 16 points on 6-of-23 shooting.
“Coming into the game we knew that the Jazz are playing some of the best basketball yet, so we knew it was going to be a tough game,” said Richardson, who was 5-for-5 from 3-point land. “But I think we did a good job of just making it a physical game.
“I think when we’re the aggressors in games, then that gives us a better chance as opposed to when we just kind of let the game flow come to us.”
Indeed, the Mavs were in attack mode all night. It was as if this one was personal.
“I like what we’re doing, I like the direction that we’re going, but if you ask the guys in that locker room, they’re going to tell you we haven’t done anything yet,” Carlisle said. “There’s a long ways to go here, there’s a lot of ground to make up that we lost early.”
But if the Mavs — they play in Houston on Wednesday — continue to perform like they performed on Monday, they clearly will be in position to make up a lot more ground over the last six weeks of the season.
“We’re trying to get into the top six (of the Western Conference),” Carlisle said of his seventh-seeded team. “We’re really not looking at the standings, but we’re just looking game-to-game and we’re really being as process-oriented as we can be.”