There was a moment in the second quarter, as the Mavericks were building their lead in an eventual 102-92 win against the Grizzlies, that caught my eye. It featured Jalen Brunson, as most Mavericks plays that catch my eye, non-Luka Doncic division, have tended to be.
It was a nice little hesitation at the top of the key, before blowing by his defender and scoring at the rim, that made me lean up and go “Oh, OK, that was nice.”
Brunson had another night that’s starting to become exceedingly typical for him — 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 2-of-5 from three, with three assists and a bonus seven rebounds. Entering tonight’s game, he was shooting 51.5 percent from the floor, 38.2 percent from three and 88.9 percent from the free throw line in a little over 24 minutes per game.
The Mavericks almost have a legitimate 50/40/90 coming off their bench and for most of the season it’s felt like the reaction has been “yeah, sure, why not.” That’s just sort of how Brunson comes across with his steady game.
Well, it’s time to shout it out with some more authority. How about this? Brunson has been the Mavericks second best player.
That might be too spicy a take, considering Brunson is fourth on the Mavericks in points per game, but let’s consider the following:
- Brunson is one of four players on the team that when they are on the floor, the Mavericks have a positive net-rating. When Brunson is on the floor, the Mavericks outscore teams, just barely, but 0.3 points per 100 possessions. When he’s off the floor, the Mavericks get outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions.
- Brunson’s 62.6 true shooting percentage is third on the team, behind Willie Cauley-Stein and Maxi Kleber. He’s the only perimeter player on the team with a true shooting percentage north of 60.
- In nine February games, Brunson has averaged about 25 minutes per game. He has a total of seven turnovers. In that same span, he has 34 assists.
- Brunson has shot 50 percent or better from the floor in every month this season.
- In the 294 minutes Doncic and Brunson have shared the court together, the Mavericks have outscored teams by 32 points. Only two other two-man pairings with Doncic perform that well, they are with Cauley-Stein and Maxi Kleber.
- In 17 clutch minutes, Brunson has made 5-of-8 shots, and scored 11 points. It’s the fourth-most clutch points scored for any Mavericks player, despite Brunson being eighth on the team in clutch minutes played.
- UPDATE: BONUS STAT! As The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney notes, Brunson ranks second in efficiency among players with 100 pick and roll possessions, including passes, this season. He’s scoring 1.23 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler while shooting 65.6 percent on said possessions, according to NBA.com
It’s hard to imagine where this team would be without Brunson, who has done just about everything you could have asked for him in his third season. The win against the Grizzlies probably best summed it up — the Mavericks gained an early lead, but still looked sluggish offensively. Brunson entered the game, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., and the game just changed. Brunson scored 10 points on five shots in the second quarter and the Mavericks built a 20-plus point lead that never got back down to single digits again. Having Brunson share the floor with Luka allowed the Mavericks to really get out in the open court, since the Mavericks are typically reliant on Doncic bringing the ball up the floor every time.
The fastbreak bucket I clipped at the beginning of this story is a great example. Brunson pushes off missed shot and Doncic doesn’t even touch it, instead almost acting like a decoy in transition. It’s hard for the Mavericks to make these type of plays when it’s just Doncic and spot up guys — it’s up to Doncic to create that offense. Having two creators on the floor at the same time can make things easier.
His development has been crucial for a Mavericks team that desperately needs as much talent to pop off around Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavericks roster is mostly composed of stand-still spot up guys after those two stars and Brunson is one of the few non-Doncic Mavericks that can reliably dribble himself into a quality shot.
Dallas is going to need a lot more of it to climb back above .500. A major sore spot for last season’s Mavericks were how reliant they were on Doncic to do, well, everything. Now with Brunson, the Mavericks have another quality ball handler that can make things happen.
- The game didn’t start particularly well, with both teams sort of dragging themselves through the mud. Josh Richardson acknowledged this in his post-game interview with the Mavericks broadcast team, saying the extended time off wore them out in the first few minutes. Richardson said once the Mavericks broke through that wall, they felt much better and that was clear by how well the team played in the second and third quarters. It would have been terrible for the Mavericks to lose a game and blame it on rust since this team has basically been put through the ringer in terms of an exhausting schedule, so it was nice to see the Mavericks power through that early dry spell and lock down the win.
- This was the Mavericks best defensive performance in what felt like eons and it certainly helps to have a team like the Grizzlies to beat up on. Memphis is missing crucial starters like Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. and you could really feel Brooks absence. Around Ja Morant, Memphis just didn’t have anyone intimidating with the ball in their hands — rookie Desmond Bane was the Grizzlies second-leading scorer with 12 points. I love me some Bane and he’s a wonderful player, but a rookie off the bench being your second biggest threat is an issue and the Mavericks made sure to capitalize. It definitely felt like there were less catastrophic defensive miscues, less finger pointing and thankfully no weird transition blunders as well. This was a solid bounce-back for the Mavericks defense, but they will be seriously tested in their next three games against Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
- Richardson saved the Mavericks early with three made 3-pointers when no one else on the team was doing much. I noted earlier in the day how Richardson’s season would look so much different if he were just shooting league-average from three. Well, he made 3-of-7 and looked tremendously more effective against Memphis. It is truly bizarre to see almost all of Richardson’s offensive numbers either exceed or match his career output except his three point shooting. He’s doing well at the rim, he’s once again knocking down his mid-range shots, he’s passing adequately, his turnovers are down — it’s all there but the shooting. If Richardson can creep closer to 34 to 35 percent from three, it’ll make a world of difference.
- The Mavericks went with a Dwight Powell/Maxi Kleber frontcourt and it worked well. Those two beat up on bench units before Powell’s Achilles injury last season and they showed off a bit of that old chemistry Monday night, with Kleber assisting Powell on a dunk. With Kristaps Porzingis looking like he’s stuck in quicksand most nights, it was fun to see a Mavericks team start two fleet-of-foot bigs. Powell’s finishing is still, well, not good, but his rim-running did open things up a bit in the pick and roll for seemingly the first time all season. Kleber didn’t do much statistically, but he was sound on the defensive end. If the Mavericks can get squeeze any semblance of pre-injury Powell out of Powell this season, that’ll be a difference maker for a Mavericks offense that has struggled with finishers in the pick and roll.
- It must be noted how truly a bizarre game this was. Brunson, Hardaway (who had another spectacular shooting night) and Richardson combined for 65 of the Mavericks 102 points. In the first half, that trio had 41 of the Mavericks 54 points! Rarely have you seen a Mavericks game less reliant on Doncic carrying the load and almost every other player outside of those four did almost nothing offensively. The starters outside of Doncic and Richardson combined to make four total shots and score 12 points. The other two Mavericks off the bench, Cauley-Stein and Trey Burke, made 1-of-4 shots and scored four points. I’m not sure that point and shot distribution will ever happen again for this Mavericks team.
- I wasn’t a big fan of the Mavericks getting outscored in the fourth quarter again, but thankfully the team never let the lead get back into single-digits. It was annoying that Doncic had to check back in, as he could have used the extra rest before another back-to-back, but this Mavericks team hasn’t really earned the benefit of the doubt that they can hold off late fourth quarter charges, so I get it.