As the Utah Jazz return home Thursday night to face the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, they have to be wondering what member of the supporting cast will ambush them this time.
On Monday night, Jalen Brunson went off for a career-high 41 points, giving the Mavericks the win.
A year ago, Terance Mann — not the guy from “Field of Dreams” — produced a then career-high 39 points against the Jazz to give the Clippers a series-clinching win in the second round of the playoffs.
The year before that, Jamal Murray erupted for a career-high 50 points against the Jazz — IN TWO DIFFERENT GAMES — in a first-round series with the Nuggets.
Let’s see, that’s four games, four career-highs, three losses. Each time it was a member of the supporting cast who torched the Jazz.
With the 2022 series tied, what’s next?
The Mavericks’ obvious threat is Luka Doncic — the best player in the NBA. Doncic was hurt and didn’t suit up for Games 1 or 2, and Brunson started at point guard in his place. After the Mavs lost Game 1, Brunson rallied the team in Game 2 by making 15 of 25 shots (6 of 10 from 3-point range) to total 41 points in 42 minutes, and he didn’t commit a single turnover.
Who saw that coming? Brunson had come off the bench for most of his four-year career until he became a starter at midseason because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. He played well to help the Mavericks survive that stretch, and when the team was healthy again he was made a permanent starter. He averaged 16 points per game during the regular season. Having played in almost 300 games (playoffs, regular season), he had surpassed 25 points only a dozen times, with a high of 34.
In 2021 the Jazz played the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs. The obvious threats were Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Jazz won the first two games and had the Clippers right where they wanted them. Then the Clippers won four straight. Leonard was injured and didn’t play in Games 5 and 6.
Mann, the 48th pick of the 2019 draft, started in his place and totaled 39 points in Game 6, making 7 of 10 from 3-point range, to send the Clippers to the conference finals and the Jazz to the offseason. Mann, who had averaged just seven points per game that season, made 15 of 21 shots.
In 2020, the Jazz’s biggest threat against the Nuggets seemed to be Nikola Jokic, but it was the unheralded Murray who was their undoing.
Murray scored a club-playoff record 50 points in Game 4, making 18 of 31 shots and netting 11 rebounds and seven assists — and committed zero turnovers. The Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell one-upped him by scoring 51 points, marking the first time in playoff history two players scored 50 points in the same game, and the Jazz won by two points to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead.
But Murray wasn’t done. He scored 42 points in Game 5 and 50 points (again) in Game 6, accounting for 21 of his team’s 31 points in the fourth quarter. That forced a Game 7, which the Nuggets won.
How big of an aberration was that? Murray’s performance in Game 6 marked only the third time in NBA history a player scored 50 points in an elimination game. Murray, who had averaged 18.5 points per game that season, became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1993 to score 40 or more points in three straight playoff games.
That’s the kind of luck that has dogged the Jazz in recent playoff performances. Then again, it reflects the depth of talent in the league. Each team has a dominant player or two, but there are plenty of other players who are capable of superstar performances if given a chance.
Andre Miller, the former Runnin’ Utes star, played 17 years in the NBA as the ultimate supporting cast member, dishing out 8,500 assists. In a 2010 game against the Mavericks, he scored a team-record 52 points for the Trail Blazers. Miller, who had averaged 14 points per game that season, made 22 of 31 field goal attempts (only one from 3-point range).
There is a chance Doncic will return to the Mavericks’ lineup when they meet the Jazz in Game 3 Thursday, but given the Jazz’s recent playoff history it might be one of the other guys they have to worry about.