There was one thought running through my head repeatedly as I watched the Dallas Mavericks take down the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City in Game 3 of their first round playoff matchup: The Mavericks have all the answers.
Dallas had a clear game plan for Utah on both sides of the ball and the execution of that strategy has been almost perfection, pushing the Mavericks have a 2-1 series lead.
To best explain how the Mavericks did this in Game 3, allow me to take you through a series of plays that showcase this. It feels like, tactically, the Mavericks have all the advantages in this series. This is why.
Jalen Brunson’s first made basket is nothing special, something we’ve seen him do countless times — with the shot clock running down he gets the ball in the paint and makes a tough shot over a contesting defender. Remember this shot, which Brunson sticks against the Jazz best perimeter defender, Royce O’Neale.
After this bucket, the Mavericks offense goes to work with what’s worked all series: attacking the Jazz’s trio of poor perimeter defenders in Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson. There’s nothing fancy about this offense, it’s just pure playoff basketball matchup hunting.
Brunson has terrorized the Jazz with this for three games now, so in the second half O’Neale finally throws a counter at Brunson: he steps up to avoid the screen, so Mitchell won’t have to switch onto Brunson. The Mavericks have an answer: Brunson sees O’Neale’s aggressiveness and as soon as he jumps up and to position himself around Reggie Bullock, Brunson immediately hits the gas away from the screen and gets himself a pretty and-one in the paint. Beautiful.
So Brunson has fried the Jazz with a fade against their best defender in isolation, hunted the Jazz’s poorest defenders in the pick and roll, and now countered O’Neale’s adjustment by going away from the screen when O’Neale tried to avoid being screened. What’s next? How about trying to go one-on-one against O’Neale again. It’s a similar situation to the first Brunson basket of the game. Except this time when Brunson starts to lean for his favorite falling away midrange shot, Brunson does everything but shoot. O’Neale, expecting the Brunson fadeaway like earlier in the game, flies by Brunson as Brunson pulls off a sweet up and under for another and-one.
Brunson has now scored 72 points in Games 2 and 3 combined with a total of one turnover in both games. Utah doesn’t have an answer for him.
The Mavericks seemingly have all the answers.
Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith have been so invaluable to the Mavericks defensive attack, that coach Jason Kidd can rarely keep them off the floor. Bullock has played 134 minutes in three games (45 minutes per game) and Finney-Smith has played 133 (44 minutes per game). In Game 3, Finney-Smith damn near played the entire game at 47 minutes.
That’s an almost unsustainable minute load and you can feel the Mavericks coaching staff realizes this. That’s why second-year forward Josh Green continues to get spot minutes in this series, despite shooting 1-of-9 from the floor in 16 combined minutes in Games 1 and 2. Without Luka Doncic, the Mavericks depth is just shot. Green has to play, even if it’s just a handful of possessions, just to give one of Bullock or Finney-Smith a quick breather.
Knowing this, the Mavericks adjusted Green’s role in Game 3. Since the Jazz were content with turning Green into Tony Allen 2.0 and leave him completely unattended on the perimeter, the Mavericks forced Green into the Jazz’s defense. Instead of the Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside playing centerfield while Green hopelessly stands in the corner, the Mavericks allowed Green to make plays with the ball in his hands.
First, he ran a pick and pop with Maxi Kleber and Whiteside had zero chance at getting out to Kleber on this three.
Dallas and Utah were two of the slowest teams in the regular season and the Jazz’s defense, which is anchored by Gobert’s strong half court presence, falters when the tempo is picked up. So despite this going against the Mavericks play style all season, Kidd smartly recognized that if Green is on the floor, he should do the one thing he’s really good at — run. That running led to passing, which is one of the other things Green is really good at.
In Games 1 and 2 Green combined for 16 minutes, two points, two steals, one assist, and zero rebounds. In Game 3, Green played 19 minutes, with 12 points, six assists, three rebounds, and two steals.
Dallas was faced with the problem of what to do with Green’s minutes since he has to play. In Game 3, the Mavericks had another answer.
While Dallas picked apart the Jazz’s awful perimeter defense, Utah did attempt some counters to avoid having their worst defenders match up with either Brunson or Spencer Dinwiddie.
In one example in the second quarter, the Jazz decided to hard show on a Dinwiddie pick and roll, so instead of switching Clarkson onto Dinwiddie, both Clarkson and Dinwiddie gave a soft trap to Dinwiddie, betting that leaving Finney-Smith open in a four-on-three situation would be more advantageous to the Jazz defense compared to the alternative of Clarkson guarding Dinwiddie. Instead Finney-Smith found Green, who then pinged it to a wide open Davis Bertans for another made three.
Earlier in the second quarter, Dinwiddie had the prime matchup with Clarkson guarding him. The Jazz decided to let Gobert play free safety on defense, since Green was on the floor and the Jazz could gamble on him being open. Instead of Dinwiddie aimlessly driving to Gobert or have Green try to make a play against O’Neale, the Mavericks ran a set I don’t think I’ve seen them run all season.
As Dinwiddie drives and Gobert sets up near the basket, both Bertans and Bullock are near each other in the left corner. Both move toward the rim as Dinwiddie drives, which feels counterintuitive for the Mavericks spacing. What looks like Bertans and Bullock attempt to crash the offensive glass off a Dinwiddie drive instead turns into Bertans setting a screen for Bullock. With Gobert helping on Dinwiddie, Bullock is sprung wide open as the Jazz perimeter defenders can’t get on the same page.
I’ve never seen the Mavericks run a play like that and for good reason — Bertans didn’t set too many screens once he was traded to Dallas. In 275 regular season minutes with the Mavericks, Bertans had seven total screen assists. He already has two in 45 playoff minutes. Again, the Mavericks had an answer.
While all of the examples so far are for how the Mavericks had answers on the offensive end, on the defensive end they’ve had plenty of answers as well. Dallas continues to masterfully execute their defensive game plan of running the Jazz off the three point line and force Utah into taking more midrange and more 10-12 footers. The Jazz led the league in three point rate this season and the Mavericks have almost cut that number in half in this series. The Mavericks have outscored the Jazz from the three point line in every game this series and have doubled them up both in Game 2 and 3.
The Jazz almost broke through in Game 3, not because the Mavericks lost track of shooters but because Maxi Kleber had serious foul trouble. With five fouls in the third quarter, Kleber had to sit most of the frame. Dallas still ran Utah off the three point line but what were once contested, difficult 12 foot shots had turned into layups and dunks. The Jazz shot 11-of-11 in the restricted area and 6-of-6 in the paint, outside the restricted area in the second half. They finished shooting 56.5 from the floor. Despite that, Dallas never abandoned the Jazz’s shooters — Utah took 28 three pointers, compared to their normal regular season mark in the low 40s. The Mavericks took 42 threes.
Once again, the Mavericks had an answer. They’ve had an answer all series and this is without Luka Doncic. It’s hard to even imagine what type of adjustments the Jazz can make at this point, but we know whatever they try, the Mavericks will likely have a solution in mind.
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