Jalen Brunson raced up the court as the Mavericks trailed the Jazz 95-91 in Game 1 of their first round matchup in the NBA playoffs. The Dallas offense was a slog all afternoon, but Brunson had Mike Conley backpedaling and a chance to go one-on-one without Jazz defensive nightmare Rudy Gobert interfering.
Brunson got to one of his favorite spots, just outside the paint on the left side of the rim. He stopped on a dime and rose above Conley for a shot before Conley could even raise his hands to contest. It’s a shot Brunson makes a lot — for the season, he’s shooting 54 percent in that area of the floor.
Except this time, he missed.
A chance for the Mavericks to cut the score to two points with less than 40 seconds left vanished. The Mavericks ended up losing the game 99-93, a chance to steal a game while Luka Doncic continues to rehab his injured left calf slipping through the Mavericks fingers.
That shot Brunson missed was emblematic of his entire night. He scored 24 points but needed 24 shots to get there, going 9-of-24 from the floor. Brunson was worse as the game progressed, shooting 4-of-9 in the first quarter and 5-of-15 in the second, third, and fourth quarters. His backcourt mate, Spencer Dinwiddie, faired similarly. He had a solid box score night with 22 points and eight assists, but shot 6-of-15 from the floor and 10-of-16 from the free throw line.
Before this series began, the stellar play of Brunson and Dinwiddie was the main reason it felt like the Mavericks had a real chance to win this series despite Doncic’s injury. Unfortunately those two faltered and the shorthanded Mavericks didn’t have enough to pick up the slack.
Starting with Brunson first, it seemed to be a combination of multiple factors for his poor shooting: he missed shots he normally makes, he forced the issue a bit too much in isolation situations, and the Jazz made sure to switch all non-Gobert pick and roll.
There’s not much else to say about Brunson missing his favorite looks — he’ll just have to convert them going forward. The other two areas — forced isolation shots and pick and roll effectiveness, are more interesting to look at. It appeared whenever Brunson had a traditional pick and roll going against a big, even Gobert, he looked much more comfortable maneuvering around the paint.
Even with Gobert defending these plays, this isn’t all that surprising, since Brunson is excellent in the pick and roll. As the pick and roll ball handler this season, Brunson scored 1.06 points per possession and shot 52.7 percent, good for the 90.8 percentile of all pick and roll ball handlers this season. Brunson can counter his issues with defensive length by using a screen to slither around and past defenders at a pace that Brunson is comfortable with.
The issue was when the Mavericks decided not to attack Gobert, the Jazz switched most non-Gobert pick and rolls. That left Brunson without that clean pocket of space in the midrange he likes to occupy and it led to multiple plays where Brunson pounded the air out of the ball trying to gain an advantage on a possession that would end up going no where.
Tunnel vision Brunson is the worst version of himself and the Jazz felt very comfortable letting their one-on-one coverage last all game and stick to shooters. After a first half where the Mavericks shooters got loose and the Jazz were thankful Dallas didn’t make them pay, the Jazz stayed home and were fine with letting Brunson and Dinwiddie do what they wanted with single coverage. Brunson and Dinwiddie combined for 13 assists and considering how often they each had the ball, that’s a really low number, especially Brunson’s five assists. The Dallas offense is at it’s best with zippy ball movement out of the pick and roll. The Jazz were more than content with letting those two try to bulldoze their way to the rim, so long as the shooters didn’t get free.
Dinwiddie was a little more effective, shooting wise, but a poor performance from the free throw line and an unwillingness to work the midrange plagued him. While it sounds counterproductive to say an NBA player needs to shoot more from the midrange, it feels true in this game. Dinwiddie had zero fear of Gobert and was 6-of-11 at and near the rim, which is commendable, especially when you add in his 16 free throw attempts. Unfortunately he made zero jumpers, missing all four of his three pointers and shooting zero midrange shots.
The misses on the threes are understandable — Dinwiddie isn’t a great career three-point shooter and with no Doncic the Mavericks didn’t get the usual amount of spoon-fed open threes that Doncic normally provides. Dinwiddie has been a terrific midrange player in Dallas, shooting 52-percent on midrange shots and a terrific 48.4-percent on pull up two pointers. It felt like at times Dinwiddie could have perhaps pulled up for a short jumper instead of barreling his way toward a miss at the basket, like this instance in the fourth quarter.
It looks like Dinwiddie could have pulled up for an open jumper near the free throw line, instead of attacking the best shot blocker in the league. That’s hard to nitpick after the fact, especially considering Dinwiddie’s free throws were the only consistent source of Mavericks points in the second half. It’s still an area of the floor I hope Dinwiddie can exploit, especially since the Jazz still like to play that drop scheme with Gobert.
Side note: how bad was the spacing on that Dinwiddie drive? Look at this:
If we’re going to criticize the duo for not moving the ball more, we also have to look at plays like this where the Mavericks spacing is so bad, there is no where for Dinwiddie to credibly move the ball.
Thankfully for the Mavericks, their defense was up to the challenge and pestered Utah with a solid game plan all day. The Dallas offense just has to be better if they want to contend in this series and that starts with their two best playmakers, sans Doncic, playing up to their expectations.
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