The Jazz’s game against Dallas will be much more significant than just 1 of 82
On Sunday, the Jazz and Mavericks will have their fourth and final bout of the regular season, a likely playoff preview
Are there any advantages to having a six-game road trip that begins in New York and ends in Los Angeles in the final two weeks of the NBA’s regular season?
“Do you have any? If you have some, I’d love to be optimistic,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said with a laugh just before the first game of the trip against the New York Knicks. “We’re going to some cities that have great restaurants.”
Jokes aside, there are a couple of reasons why the Jazz’s current road trip is particularly important. First, is the team building and cohesion that happens when an NBA team travels together.
“I think it brings us together at a time you need to have that going in the playoffs,” Mike Conley said. “No, we don’t want to be on a cross-country trip but it is what it is and I think we’ll be better from having this trip this late in the year ... it’ll be great for us and allow us to come together, unite, get our chemistry rolling for the playoffs.”
But maybe even more important than any type of bonding that could happen is the fifth game of the six-game expedition.
Not just one of 82
On Sunday, the Jazz and Dallas Mavericks will have their fourth and final bout of the regular season. You’re bound to hear that the game is just one of 82 and that getting a win is the most important thing next to the Jazz continuing to improve and playing their way, the right way (insert any number of other sports cliches about not putting extra weight on any one game).
But, the matchup between these teams is not your run-of-the-mill regular-season contest. This will be the last chance for the Jazz to gain as much intel against their most likely first-round playoff opponent.
The Jazz and Mavericks have pretty firmly settled into the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively, in the Western Conference standings.
Although it’s completely in the realm of possibility that the Jazz could move up, that the third-place Golden State Warriors could fall now that they’re playing without an injured Stephen Curry, or that the Denver Nuggets could surge upward out of sixth place to supplant the Mavericks, the most likely scenario is that the Jazz and Mavericks will finish the regular season the fourth and fifth seeds and play a best-of-seven series to open the 2022 postseason.
Are there tiebreaker implications for the game on the 27th?
Technically, yes. If the Jazz win Sunday they will have won the season series against the Mavericks outright. If the Jazz lose the game, the season series will be tied up.
“They’re a team that is connected and they’re really good. They’re just really good.” — Jazz coach Quin Snyder on the Dallas Mavericks
Who would earn the higher seed in the standings if they were to end up with the same win percentage on the season?
The first tiebreaker would be decided by a division winner. Right now, that is clearly going to be Jazz, who are leading the Northwest Division’s second-place Nuggets by two games, while the Mavericks are six games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the Southwest Division.
There would have to be a lot of losing and movement to even have that tiebreaker questioned, so the Jazz are in a good place even if they were to lose on Sunday, but they don’t want to leave that to chance and want to lock things up for good with a third win over the Mavs.
The Jazz are leading the regular-season series against Dallas, 2-1, having won both of their home games, one on Christmas Day and the other on Feb. 25, but the Mavs took the March 7 contest in Dallas to make things a little more interesting as both teams already had it in their minds that they could be meeting in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We might see them, and this already kind of felt like that,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said after that Jazz loss.
“We go up 2-0 in a sense and then they come back and counter and take care of home court, so now it’s about how we respond on the 27th.”
How to look at the previous meetings
The Jazz’s first game against the Mavericks this season was a nationally televised and highly anticipated battle that was part of the Christmas Day slate, but it ended up being pretty underwhelming, as Luka Doncic and a whole rash of other players weren’t able to play as injuries and COVID-19 tore through the Dallas roster.
Kristaps Porzingis was the high scorer for the Mavericks that night and didn’t last on the roster past the trade deadline.
In addition to being without their star player, much of the Mavericks’ lineup consisted of G-Leaguers and other low-usage players, so if we’re being realistic, there’s not much that can be taken from that first game.
The second meeting on Feb. 25 was a little closer to what the Jazz could expect to see should the two teams meet in the playoffs and provided one of the most exciting regular-season chess moves we’ve seen from the Jazz this year.
The Jazz beat the Mavericks using three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert to guard one of the most lethal offensive players in the NBA today in Doncic in the closing minutes, and Gobert was exceptional.
With that Feb. 25 game happening after the trade deadline and Dallas’ roster including Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans and the Jazz having Danuel House but not Joe Ingles, it’s probably been the game that most closely resembles what could be available for them when the postseason rolls around.
It should be noted, though, that Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr., who has since had foot surgery, and Utah’s Rudy Gay were not available for that second matchup.
On March 7, the Jazz lost to the Mavericks in Dallas. The Jazz were at full strength for that game but the Mavericks were still without Hardaway and they were also missing Jalen Brunson, who is a huge piece of their rotation.
That provided a lot of valuable game tape for the Jazz because it included a lot of different offensive and defensive looks from the Mavericks.
When thinking about what a full-strength Mavericks team would look like, Snyder points first — obviously — to Doncic, but quickly noted the depth and versatility of the Dallas roster, which is not something that can be underestimated, especially when it comes to postseason basketball.
“Brunson is a handful to guard, Dinwiddie has been playing great, Maxi (Kleber) is defensively one of the most underrated players in the league, he can stay in front of anybody, (Dwight) Powell’s ability to be up in pick-and-roll and then to protect the rim, (Dorian) Finney-Smith’s development, his ability to make shots to go with his on-ball defense, he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the league,” Snyder said.
“They’re a team that is connected and they’re really good. They’re just really good.”
And that’s what the Jazz have to contend with Sunday and what they will probably have to be ready for when the playoffs begin on April 16.
This upcoming game is the last chance to experiment, get things on film that require a second and third viewing, try out different combinations and try to find ways to neutralize the effective strategies the Mavericks have to offer, because the next time the Jazz see them, the lights will probably be much brighter and the stakes will be much larger than those of a regular-season game.