The buzzards were circling. The naysayers had the shovels out, ready to start the burial.
Then, Jalen Brunson happened. And Maxi Kleber happened. And the Mavericks suddenly have been removed from the endangered list and have sent national talk shows into a tizzy talking about the frailties of the Utah Jazz instead of the Mavericks’ vulnerability without Luka Dončić.
The Mavericks evened the first-round playoff series against Utah at a win apiece with their manly 110-104 victory in Game 2 on Monday night. It’s now a best-of-five with Utah owning the home-court advantage.
And, yes, the Mavericks have been incapable of winning at the Jazz’s home arena since April 11, 2016, when Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Raymond Felton and Salah Mejri led the Mavericks to a 101-92 victory. Since then, it’s been 11 losses in a row at Utah.
But they have three chances to get a win there, starting Thursday. And at some point, they hope to get Luka back, which in theory should improve their chances greatly.
And Game 2 proved the Mavericks can assert their will with or without Luka.
So here’s our takeaways from their first home playoff victory since they beat Houston at AAC in the 2015 postseason.
PAY THE MAN: What we learned (or, maybe, just had reinforced) was that Jalen Brunson is going to be a very rich man, even by NBA standards, very soon. He put together a strong, career-best regular season, which was enough to ensure that he’ll be a hot commodity as an unrestricted free agent this summer. But when you drop 41 points in the playoffs in a game that would have put you in an 0-2 hole if you lose it, that’s showing major grit and talent. As coach Jason Kidd said afterward: “He’s going to make a lot of money. I don’t know if he needs an agent, but I’m going to put my name in the hat. He’s already done the work this season. He’s shown he deserves to be paid. And he’s a winner. Hopefully he can pay me for that.” Now comes the hard part for Brunson. You can bet that the Jazz are going to double their defensive efforts against him. That should open more options for Spencer Dinwiddie and others. The chess match is just starting.
WELCOME BACK, MAXI: When Maxi Kleber finished the season by sitting out the final four games with a sore ankle – after shooting 18.8 percent from 3-point range after the All-Star break – it was fair to wonder just how much impact he could have in the playoffs. Turns out he would have a major impact. Huge. Massive, even. Kleber hit 8-of-11 3-pointers, one shy of the Mavericks’ playoff record by Jason Terry. Kleber’s 25 points included 19 in the second half when the Mavericks made up a 10-point deficit. It was the 18th time this season they’ve overcome a double-figure gap.
DON’T FORGET THE DEFENSE: The Mavericks got big props for holding the Jazz to 99 points in Game 1. But they lost that game. On Monday, they only gave up five more points, still holding Utah well below their season-average of more than 113 points per game. The Mavericks have allowed the Jazz to shoot only 51 3-pointers in two games. The Jazz averaged more than 40 per game in the regular season. If that continues, you have to like the Mavericks’ chances. “Analytics will say if you’re shooting threes and the other team is shooting twos, you have a great chance of winning,” Kidd said. “It’s just mathematics. If we’re making threes and they’re making twos, we’re playing their game.” Meaning that the Mavericks would be doing what the Jazz usually do.
GETTING AWAY WITH IT: The Mavericks were clobbered in the rebounding department for the second game in a row. Big deal. They also only had three turnovers, none in the second half. That helps you absorb getting hammered on the boards. The final number was 50-31 and the second-chance points were 18-4 in Utah’s favor. But, as Kidd said: “They can win the rebounding war, but it’s about winning the game. And that’s what we did.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The series is 1-1 and the overriding question remains whether Dončić will get on the court before somebody advances to the second round. He shot 3-pointers before Game 2. But he wasn’t shooting them with full extension in his legs. He desperately wants to return, of course. But he’s also the future of the franchise. The worst thing that could happen is he returns too quickly, injures something seriously and jeopardizes next season, too. You can be absolutely certain that the Mavericks’ medical staff will do everything to ensure that scenario does not happen. But every time the Mavericks can win a game and extend their season, it improves the chances of Luka returning in this series – or the next one.
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