Playoff deja vu: Jazz’s defense succumbs to hot-shooting Mavericks in frustrating Game 2 loss
Dallas gets career games from Maxi Kleber and Jalen Brunson in the absence of superstar Luka Doncic and takes a 110-104 win over Utah
Who needs superstar Luka Doncic when relatively unknown role players like Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber are around?
The Dallas Mavericks sent that message to the Utah Jazz loud and clear on Monday night, rolling to a 110-104 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 2 at American Airlines Center to even the best-of-seven series at a game apiece.
Committing just three turnovers against a toothless Jazz defense and exploiting Utah in a playoff game in the same fashion that the Los Angeles Clippers did last year, the Mavericks may have totally changed the complexion of this Western Conference first-round series.
With Doncic watching from the bench, his left calf strain keeping him out for the second-straight game, Brunson scored a career-high 41 points on 15 of 25 shooting and Kleber was 8 of 11 from 3-point range after making just eight 3-pointers in all of March.
“Yeah, we have prepared for it extensively. This isn’t something that is foreign to our group. … Sometimes when a team is making 47% of their 3s, it is going to be a tough game to win.” — Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder
It was eerily reminiscent of what the Clippers did to the Jazz last year to close out the second-round series in Los Angeles: The Mavs went five out, penetrated at will against the foul-troubled Mike Conley and step slow Jordan Clarkson and Donovan Mitchell, then either finished at the rim or found shooters like Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock on the perimeter.
Dallas shot an incredible 22 of 47 from 3-point range (46.8%) in getting back into the series.
“Our (defensive) rotations weren’t as sharp as they need to be,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
That’s an understatement, obviously. A lot of those 3-pointers were uncontested, much like Terance Mann’s were last year in Game 6 against the Clippers.
“It starts on the ball,” said Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who had 34 points but needed 30 shots to get there. “I think some of the stuff we can fix. … You gotta keep guys in front. We gotta do a better job at that, and then limit their wide-open 3s.”
Asked about the similarities to last year’s season-ending loss to the Clippers, Snyder said the Jazz have worked on stopping that five-out attack all season.
“Yeah, we have prepared for it extensively,” he said. “This isn’t something that is foreign to our group. … Sometimes when a team is making 47% of their 3s, it is going to be a tough game to win.”
About 90 minutes after the Jazz learned defensive stopper Rudy Gobert was snubbed in favor of Boston’s Marcus Smart and Mikal Bridges of Phoenix in Defensive Player of the Year voting, they looked a step slow from the get-go, particularly on defense. But while the offense eventually got going — Utah shot a reasonable 46% from the field and 38% from deep — its defenders simply could not slow down Brunson, Dallas’ primary ball-handler when Doncic is out.
“I thought we were a step slow from the beginning of the game, and that’s not to take anything away from Dallas,” Snyder said. “We gotta clean some things up and be better, and we have a group that is prepared to do that.”
Mitchell, who was often the victim of the burly Brunson’s bruising drives, said the Jazz are “not going to overreact” to one game, while crediting Brunson and Kleber for having outstanding nights. He said the lackluster defensive performance “is not last year all over again.”
He reminded reporters that last year he had a bum ankle and Mike Conley had a bad hamstring. There is no such excuse this year.
“We tried to go out there and take both (games), but it didn’t happen. We are going to go home, and we gotta take care of business. Simple as that. They are going to try to split just like we did here. At the end of the day, we are happy we took a game and we will go back and take care of business.”
The Jazz ended the first half on a 7-0 run to take a 55-48 lead at the break.
Prior to that, Mitchell and Brunson took turns lighting up the scoreboard, with Brunson feasting on awful Utah defense in the first quarter and Mitchell heating up in the second.
Brunson scored 15 of Dallas’ first 18 points and finished the half with 21. Mitchell was 7 of 13 in the first half, continuing his hot shooting from Saturday’s second half when he scored 30 points in the final 24 minutes. He also had 21 at the break, giving him 51 in his last 48 minutes of play dating back to Saturday’s second half.
Mavericks not named Brunson struggled in the first half; Brunson was 8 of 14, while the remainder of the team was 10 of 30. Kleber was shooting 19% from 3-point range since the all-star break, but on this night he looked like Steph Curry out there, going 8 of 11.
“We know he can knock down those shots,” Gobert said. “Those shots are easier when he knows he is going to get them.”
The Mavericks pushed the pace at every opportunity in an effort to beat the shot-blocking Gobert down the floor, and had an 11-0 advantage in fast break points in the first half, 16-3 in the game.
Rebounds were 56-38 in Utah’s favor, but “small ball” worked better for the Mavs on Monday than it did on Saturday.
“I don’t think it is the offense (lacking) for us right now,” said Clarkson, who had 21 points. “It is the defense, and figuring out what to do in those situations.”
Down the stretch, when a win was still within reach, the Jazz played too much hero ball, going three straight possessions without points due to some ill-advised shots. For some reason, running, sweeping hook shots were back in vogue.
Finney-Smith’s triple with 2:25 left gave Dallas a 107-102 lead and was the dagger. Brunson finished it off with 4 of 4 free-throw shooting.
Gobert said it is a long series, which he compared to a marathon, and said the Jazz will return to Salt Lake City with a sense of accomplishment.
“Two (wins) would have been great,” he said. “One is good.”
Game 3 is Thursday at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.