Throughout the week leading up to Game 1 of the first-round playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, there was great debate about how the Mavericks would fare in the likelihood that All-Star Luka Doncic couldn’t play.
Doncic had suffered a calf strain in Dallas’ regular season finale last Sunday, and while some thought the Mavericks would have enough talent without him, many didn’t.
After Game 1 Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas, both camps could reasonably make the argument that they are correct.
Yes, the Mavericks lost 99-93 as they couldn’t compensate enough for missing Doncic’s average of 28.4 points per game (fifth in the NBA), but they certainly didn’t fold as their defense kept them in the game.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Doncic will likely miss Game 2 on Monday in Dallas also, with Mavericks officially saying that the Slovenian superstar is day-to-day.
“The looks that we got coming down the stretch, we normally make those, and that’s just the game of basketball — sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t — but I thought overall, we slowed the game down and we gave ourselves a chance to win without Luka, and that just shows a sign of a good team,” head coach Jason Kidd said.
Without Doncic, much of the playmaking responsibility rested with point guard Jalen Brunson and usual bench star Spencer Dinwiddie, who was put in the starting lineup.
Those two certainly showed up in a big way, combining for 46 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds.
“They were great this afternoon, offensively and defensively,” Kidd said. “They found guys, got shots, but our defense gave us a chance to win this game, so a lot of good stuff not just from those two, but from the team.”
Dinwiddie echoed that sentiment about the team’s performance.
“If anything, right, this should be encouraging for the fan base in my opinion,” he said. “We’re disappointed in the locker room. ... Obviously give (the Jazz) credit. They went out there and won the game, but ... we had our chance to win it, and we just didn’t do it.”
As far as that defense was concerned, it was clear that the Mavericks had two rather obvious objectives: Try to prevent lobs to 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert despite a pretty significant size disadvantage and try to limit Donovan Mitchell, especially from getting going behind the 3-point line.
Dallas had significant success stopping Gobert, as he only ended up with one field goal attempt the whole game and scored just five points, all from the free-throw line.
Defending Mitchell also went great in the first half, as he scored just two points, but then he exploded for 19 in the third quarter and 11 more in the fourth.
“The things that we did defensively without Luka being able to rebound for us and participate defensively, I thought the game plan was great,” Kidd said.
“They didn’t score 100 points, and when you do that in today’s basketball, that tends to give you a chance to win, but we just didn’t have enough offensive power down the stretch.”
Added Dorian Finney-Smith, who has become one of the best wing defenders in the NBA and had the assignment of guarding Mitchell, “I think our defense gave us a chance. ... We make a couple more 3s, free throws and it’ll be a different story, but they were the better team, and we’re going to try to get this one on Monday.”
While Kidd and his team were pleased with their overall performance, the two glaring areas certainly were that offensive firepower, as well as getting crushed in the rebounding department.
In a crucial stretch of 3:45 in the third quarter, Utah went on a 9-1 run as Dallas couldn’t get anything going.
On the rebounding front, the Jazz won that battle in convincing fashion 53-34 as Gobert finished with 17, Hassan Whiteside had eight in just 13 minutes and three others added six apiece.
“We’ve got to rebound the ball,” Kidd said. “We got them to miss. We have to do a better job as smalls, come back to help.
“That’s something we knew was going to be an issue, especially playing small, but I thought the guys fought. That’s just something that we’ve got to get better at, and if we can do that, that hopefully puts us in a better seat to win.”