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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide Utah Jazz vs Dallas Mavericks: A heavyweight matchup in the first round

Dallas and Utah both profile as contenders, yet only one will advance to the second round

NBA: Utah Jazz at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get into the nitty gritty and latest storylines, it must be said how much potential the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz have at giving everyone a classic playoff series.

Despite Utah’s struggles to end the season, the Jazz finished the season first in offense and ninth in defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Mavericks finished 12th in offense and eighth in defense. Both teams like to launch from the outside — Utah is first in three point rate, Dallas fifth. Both teams can execute in the half court, with the Mavericks second in half-court points per play and the Jazz fourth.

Each team is capable of lighting it up, with solid defenses behind them. The Jazz are slightly more democratic in their touches, but make no mistake, the fulcrum of the team is the Donovan Mitchell pick and roll with Rudy Gobert, much like the Mavericks rely on Luka Doncic in the two man game with a variety of players, most notably Dwight Powell.

Unfortunately there are off the court question marks that can dampen this series’ potential. But if Luka Doncic can get healthy and the Jazz iron out their chemistry woes, this has a chance to be an all-time series in terms of sheer entertainment value and level of play.

Here are the big questions for the series:

Can the Mavericks win this series without Luka Doncic?

By far the biggest storyline of this series is the health of Luka Doncic. He strained his left calf in the Mavericks season finale against the Spurs on Sunday and reportedly is going to miss at least Game 1 against the Jazz on Saturday.

Trusting that report, let’s assume Doncic is out Game 1, which also means there’s a chance he could miss Game 2 or more time. The Mavericks are so reliant on Doncic, it feels like the Jazz should win this series walking away with Doncic unavailable for the full series, right?

In reality, it’s murky. Dallas has a chance.

Thanks to the trade of Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dallas has three capable point guards they can trust with running the offense. Dinwiddie has been a revelation in Dallas — he’s averaging three more points per game than he did in Washington while shooting 13 percent better on twos (43.2% vs. 56.8%) and almost 10 percent better from three (31% vs. 40.4%). He’s exploded in the structured Mavericks offense, where every player has their own defined role. It also helps that while Doncic dominates the Mavericks total usage, he still has a pass first mentality with the ball in his hands, which has allowed Dinwiddie to get better looks than he did with the Wizards.

The key for the Mavericks beating the Jazz without Doncic lies on the shoulders of Dinwiddie and second-year guard Jalen Brunson, who has had a career year as Doncic’s starting backcourt partner. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Dinwiddie/Brunson lineups with Doncic off the floor are scoring 115.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 107.1. That offensive number is a smidge higher than Dallas’ season long number and the defensive number is stellar despite neither Dinwiddie or Brunson being staunch defenders.

Dinwiddie and Doncic have been a decent pairing, but when Doncic is off the floor, Dinwiddie basically turns into mini-Luka. Without Doncic, Dinwiddie’s usage skyrockets to 30 percent, his assist rate doubles (16.7 to 30.6), and Dinwiddie puts up a Luka-esque 64.3 true shooting percentage. This allows Brunson to continue to stay in his secondary creator role, as Dinwiddie does his best Doncic impression.

Doncic has missed two games since the Dinwiddie trade and with the major qualifiers that this is a small sample plus the opponents were the Rockets and Kings, here are Dinwiddie’s raw numbers: 31 points, 6.5 assists, three rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 46.2 percent from three.

Dallas will need those numbers to carry forward against a Jazz defense built around the talents of Gobert. Dinwiddie is shooting 52.4 percent on midrange shots and a staggering 48.4 percent on pull-up twos since being traded to Dallas. That is key against Gobert, who prefers to stay closer to the rim in pick and roll coverage. Despite those numbers, the Mavericks have still been outscored in the minutes Dinwiddie has played against the Jazz with Gobert on the floor and Dinwiddie’s true shooting percentage plummets to 50.6.

Will Donovan Mitchell break free from three?

Look at the the four games the Mavericks and Jazz have played this season and you’ll find a common thread — if Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell gets loose from three? Jazz win. If he doesn’t? Jazz lose.

Mitchell shot 8-of-19 from three in the Jazz’s two wins and 3-of-13 in the two losses. The Mavericks defensive improvement has been a huge bright spot for the Mavericks, but they still do not possess an individual defender that is built to keep up with Mitchell on the perimeter. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock are great defenders for Dallas, but they’re both bigger wings, who would prefer to use their size, length, and strength to bother shots inside the arc. When Mitchell is dancing around a pick and roll and pulling up from three, it’s truly the type of shot that can bust open the Mavericks defense.

Funny enough, the Mavericks two wins in the regular season came after the Jazz’s first two wins, so there’s a clear progression on how the Mavericks adjusted their defense to take away Mitchell’s pull-up three. A key note for the Mavericks defending this play — it’s much less about the contest, but taking the shot away all together. You’ll notice in the Mavericks wins, not only did Mitchell shoot a poorer percentage, but he took less three pointers total compared to the two games the Jazz won against the Mavericks.

The two biggest adjustments by Dallas? Have their big meet Mitchell at the three point line and the Mavericks wing defenders, either Finney-Smith or Bullock, doing a better job fighting through the screen or just avoiding it.

You can see in this play Dwight Powell jump out to Mitchell and force him to take a contested shot at the rim. Powell and Maxi Kleber will both need to be ready to be this active at the three point line when Mitchell has the ball in his hands.

On this play you can see Finney-Smith fight through the screen, go under it, and prevent Mitchell from turning the corner and walking into a wide open three. Mitchell is so good he can just avoid the screen and still spring himself for a decent look, but this is a much better scenario for Dallas compared to Mitchell pulling up after scooting past the screener.

This is the type of defensive effort the Mavericks will need routinely in the pick and roll to keep Mitchell flustered.

Unfortunately for the Mavericks, you’ll notice something in each of those clips — Gobert wasn’t on the floor. Gobert missed this matchup with a leg injury. There’s a giant difference for Mitchell and the Jazz with Gobert being the one to screen. Just look at the difference from one of the Jazz’s wins against the Mavericks.

The Mavericks will have their work cut out for them with Gobert at full health to start this series. Finney-Smith and Bullock will need to fight like hell to get through a Gobert screen and Kleber and Powell have to be ready to close out quickly.

Can the Mavericks role players make shots?

Despite Doncic’s brilliance in his two playoff outings, the Mavericks still didn’t win either series. A primary culprit is that the Mavericks role players just can’t seem to put it all together.

In the final four playoff games against the Clippers in the 2021 playoffs, the Mavericks role players mostly wilted. Tim Hardaway Jr. shot 23.5 percent from three. Kristaps Porzingis shot 21.4. Jalen Brunson shot 33.3. Josh Richardson shot 20 on the nose. Maxi Kleber shot 11.1. Those were major Mavericks role players last season!

The playoff series before that, in 2020 also against the Clippers, isn’t much better. After tying the series at 2-2 in Game 4, the Mavericks lost the next two games. Hardaway again faltered at 27.8 percent and Seth Curry disappointed shooting 20 percent. About the only role player that has been immune to the shooting slumps has been Dorian Finney-Smith, who shot 40.3 percent from three in each of those series.

Thankfully, most of those Mavericks role players won’t be involved in this series, as the Mavericks moved on from Porzingis and Richardson, while Hardaway is injured. Despite Hardaway’s playoff slumps, he was the only other high-volume shooter on the roster aside from Doncic. Now the Mavericks will need to rely on multiple guys to pick up the slack — Brunson has to shake off his playoff struggles from a year ago, Finney-Smith has to stay solid, and Kleber has to show a pulse. The swing player for the Mavericks might be Bullock, who is the type of shooter and defender the team desperately needed in the prior playoff battles against the Clippers. Bullock has done his best Hardaway impression to close the season, shooting 47.2 percent from three in his final eight games on 6.6 attempts per game. If the Mavericks role players can convert the open shots either Doncic or Dinwiddie will create and punish Gobert whenever he tries to hide on a poor shooter, the Mavericks should win this series.

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