Compared with most of the Utah Jazz’s 14 other opponents in the NBA’s Western Conference, their playoff history with the Dallas Mavericks — their first-round opponent this year — is very brief.
The two sides have met just twice in the postseason, and the two times were both spread pretty far apart from each other and in the rather distant past.
The first meeting came all the way back in 1986, and the second was 15 years later in 2001.
That’s the extent of the history.
Of Utah’s 14 opponents in the West, that is the third-fewest times it has played a team in the playoffs (they’ve never faced the Minnesota Timberwolves or New Orleans Pelicans, and they’ve faced the Memphis Grizzlies just once — in the first round last year).
But despite the lack of playoff meetings between Utah and Dallas, the last one marked a pivotal point in both teams’ histories, especially the Mavericks.
It was the spring of 2001, and while Utah was in the post-NBA Finals era of 1997 and 1998, it was still a good team, the 4 seed in the West.
Dallas, meanwhile, was moving in the opposite direction. Mark Cuban had bought the team about 16 months earlier, and for the first time since 1990, the Mavericks were in the playoffs.
Led by a young core of Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Juwan Howard, they were the 5 seed (both teams finished the regular season with 53 wins, but the Jazz won the tiebreaker).
This was in the days when the first round was a best of 5 rather than a best of 7, and the Jazz took the first two games in Salt Lake City.
Game 1 was a 2-point win, and Game 2 was an 11-point difference.
With their backs against the wall, the Mavericks won the next two games in Dallas — including a 30-point win in Game 4 — to tie the series up.
Then Game 5 happened.
With an opportunity to win the series on their home floor, the Jazz led by 14 entering the fourth quarter, but the Mavericks used a 12-0 run to get back in it inside of seven minutes to play.
Dallas finally tied things up with 4:02 remaining, and stayed within one until just seconds were left.
That’s when Finley passed out of a double-team (he had been hot in the fourth quarter) to backup center Calvin Booth right by the basket.
Karl Malone was there to defend Booth, but somewhat strangely, he didn’t offer much resistance (he wasn’t in foul trouble), and Booth laid the ball in to give the Mavericks a 1-point lead.
The Jazz still very much had a chance on the final possession, but Bryon Russell missed a completely wide open look from 3, and Malone missed a jumper from about 20 feet as time expired.
Dallas won the series.
The series wound up being a crucial point for both franchises. For the Mavericks, it was their first playoff series victory since 1988, and their first of 12 consecutive playoff appearances, which included two NBA Finals appearances and a championship in 2011.
For the Jazz, it marked the first time since 1995 that they didn’t make it past the first round, and it was the first of six consecutive years in which they either did not make it past the first round or missed the playoffs altogether.
In 2019, Nowitzki reflected on the 2001 series against the Jazz while he was in Salt Lake City for the final game of his career at Vivint Arena.
“Amazing, amazing times back then when the Mavs hadn’t been in the playoffs there in the ’90s for a long, long time,” he told the Deseret News. “Being part of that turnaround with (Nash) and (Finley), that was awesome. Then we were down, lose (the first two) games here, go down 0-2 and come back against (John) Stockton and Malone.
“I remember when Malone missed that last shot, I was running around full court like we won the championship, and that was a first-round series.”
Nowitzki noted how Dallas lost in the next round to the San Antonio Spurs, but that first-round win over the Jazz in dramatic fashion “was the start for us of a great decade of winning 50 games-plus (each season) and having some great teams and having a lot of fun winning and competing.”