If the Jazz lose this first-round series to a Dallas club that is playing without Luka Dončić – a loss that would likely bring about a significant change in Utah – they will likely look back on Monday’s Game 2 loss as the night they everything happened separately.
In case point guard Mike Conley’s 0-7 goalless display in 22 minutes wasn’t surprising enough, the Jazz yielded a 41 points, five assists, zero turnover showing 6’1″ of Mavs guard Jalen Brunson in a 110-104 loss that evened the series at 1-1. Nobody—no Luka, no Dirk– in the history of the Mavs had already posted a 40-point, zero-revenue playoff game before that. The man is going to make a lot of money this summer.
You might wonder how such a small player, however talented, can generate so much offense against a team with perhaps the best rim protector in the game. But while Brunson shot over the top of the Stifle Tower a few times, he often stopped short of reaching it, attacking that challenging mid-court space after defeating the slow-footed Jazz defenders on the spot. Rudy Gobert, trying to play both his man (Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber) and the ball, was usually only comfortable going up that high, not wanting to yield a lob or an open triple.
The last concern was the one that jumped off the canvas late with the Jazz’s defense, as we’ve seen before. Utah has been a perimeter sieve all year, but Monday was especially embarrassing considering how great it would have been to have a 2-0 lead on a team that could have put their perennial MVP contender back in the lineup in the next days.
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More specifically, Brunson’s repeated shots to the basket forced help from Gobert, who was doing his best not to give up on open eyes at the rim. But by helping, he had to leave the right corner, where Kleber was opened one move after another. It appeared exactly the same as last year’s Western Conference semifinal series against the Clippers, in which Los Angeles repeatedly urged Gobert out of position so he could make a quick pass to a wide-open pitcher along the arc. (To be fair, we also saw this at the end of some Utah meltdowns this season, when Gobert and the Jazz didn’t dispute the perimeter after a trade. See, for example, this return from Golden State in the penultimate week of the season.)
Fixing that, other than finding better perimeter defenders, was really the only thing the Jazz needed to address last offseason. (That effort, to acquire Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall and have them serve as small-ball centers, didn’t work.) But again, Utah appeared to have failed the exam. “The telling thing is that we can’t have Brunson the night he had and also be able to kick the ball for these looks,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
Put another way: Utah took nothing, even on a night when Dončić was injured.
The Mavericks did seventeen uncontested triples in the night, more than any club in the last 10 postseasons, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information Group. Of Kleber’s eight three, seven of them came with no Jazz supporters nearby.
With the win, the Mavs gained some time to get Dončić back. But even if he doesn’t return, Dallas may have found Utah’s kryptonite, and that could be enough to make this a series with or without the superstar point guard.
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