4:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Jazz -6, Over/Under: 212.5
One of the more surprising series continues to unfold tonight as the resilient Dallas Mavericks may very well welcome back the biggest gun in their arsenal as they encounter the fading Utah Jazz in Game Four of their First Round Series from Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even the most optimistic fan could hardly imagine that the Mavericks (52-30, 4th in Western Conference) would be leading this series through three games without the services of (All-NBA Guard) Luka Doncic (28.4 PTS, 45.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 74.4%, 9.1 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.6 BLK, 25.1 PER), who has yet to participate in the postseason thus far healing from a strained calf muscle. Needless to say, the 23-year-old is a MAJOR component of Dallas’ gameplan, with the Slovenian international leading the team in a slew of categories including points (28.4), minutes played (35.4), three-pointers (201), free-throws (364), rebounds (9.1), assists (8.7), and PER (25.1). However, ethe Mavs have remained formidable even without the three-time All-Star, and that is a testament to the job that (Head Coach) Jason Kidd has done in his first season leading the club. Of course, Kidd has enjoyed quite the career in North Texas; he was drafted second overall by the franchise back in 1994, and after spending the first two and a half years with them returned via trade roughly a decade later to help lead them to their first (and only) NBA Championship in 2011. After retiring in 2013, the Hall of Famer immediately segued to the bench where he became the Brooklyn Nets Head Coach the following season, though his tenure would be brief, last just one campaign before jumping ship to Milwaukee in 2014, where he led them to the playoffs twice in four years. However, his tenure with the Bucks didn’t necessarily end well, forcing Kidd to serve as an assistant for the (2019-2020 NBA Champion) Lakers for two years, before being called to return to Dallas for a third term. Indeed, the 49-year-old’s career has come full circle, with (Owner) Mark Cuban tabbing him to get the most out of the aforementioned Doncic, whose relationship with the previous coaching staff became stressed last season. After a mediocre 17-18 start to the campaign, everything changed for the Mavericks at the turn of the new year, with the team going on an 18-6 run heading into the All-Star Break and finishing the regular season on a 17-6 stretch to capture the fourth seed out West. So, what in the name of Derek Harper has changed in Big D, you ask? Well, as his previous teams have played, the Mavs have improved under Kidd’s watch simply by slowing things down. It’s ironic that someone who was so synonymous with pushing the tempo during his playing days would prefer to play at a crawl, but we cannot argue with the results; Dallas has played at the league slowest pace (95.4 possessions per 48 minutes), which has seriously helped them clamp down on the defensive end of the hardwood, where they’ve allowed the second-fewest points (104.7), the fewest three-pointers (10.9), and the seventh-fewest free-throws (15.8). Furthermore, this approach has proven far better suited to the strengths of Doncic, who can really control the tempo of the game; they’re frustratingly difficult to turn over, committing an average of 12.5 turnovers per game (3rd Overall), parlaying to a percentage of 11.7% (8th Overall). And when everything slows down in the playoffs (as it so often does), this style of play is very conducive to success, even without Doncic. It’s no coincidence that this team’s fortunes turned around the Trade Deadline, when they shipped out (oft-injured sharpshooter) Kristaps Porzingis in a deal with the Wizards for (veteran Guard) Spencer Dinwiddie (15.8 PTS, 49.8% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 72.5% FT, 3.1 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 19.0 PER) and (sharpshooting Forward) Davis Bertans (5.3 PTS, 37.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 2.5 REB, 0.7 AST, 11.2 PER). The marriage between Doncic and Porzingis was icy at best and getting the latter’s contract off the books was a mandate for the club. Fortunately, both Dinwiddie and Bertans have exceeded expectations, with the former proving to be an absolute revelation coming off the bench after spending the first half of the season looking apathetic in the nation’s capital. And then there is the supporting cast, particularly (emerging Guard) Jalen Brunson (16.3 PTS, 50.2% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 84.0% FT, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 17.1 PER), who has flourished under Kidd’s watch and is making himself A LOT of money in these playoffs before becoming a Free Agent this summer. Ask the Jazz how good the 25-year-old is, for in the last two games (both of which were Dallas wins) he has averaged a torrid 36.0 points on 57.4% shooting, including 42.9% from beyond the arc, along with 4.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.0 steal, including a career-high FORTY-ONE points in Game Two’s 110-104 victory at American Airlines Center. With the series shifting to Salt Lake City, the Mavericks took control of the matters early in Game Three, racing out to a 67-58 lead at halftime, shooting 50.0% from the field and 13-of-25 from downtown (52.0%), assisting on fourteen of their twenty-one field goals and committing a mere four turnovers. However, the hosts would rally back after intermission on the strength of a 40-29 third quarter, though Kidd’s troops would manage to hold in the end for a 126-118 victory. Brunson impressed yet again with thirty-one points on an efficient 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), while Dinwiddie filled up the stat sheet with twenty points, five rebounds, six assists, and three steals in over forty minutes of action. The bench came up huge too, with the aforementioned Bertans totaling fifteen points on 4-of-7 shooting from three (57.1%), while (German Forward) Maxi Kleber (7.0 PTS, 39.8% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 70.8% FT, 5.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 11.0 PER) continued to torment Utah from the perimeter, with seventeen points on 6-of-7 shooting (85.7%), 4-of-5 of which came from long range (80.0%). One of the more indispensable members of Kidd’s rotation, Kleber has been on FIRE in this series, torching the Jazz on 14-of-21 shooting from three (66.7%). And now it appears that the cavalry could be arriving today, as Doncic has officially been branded a game-time decision for Game Four, with Kidd stating that he’s “optimistic” that the two-time All-NBA selection will be ready to suit up, and that his side’s current advantage in the series will not play in how he handles his return.
Meanwhile, what in the name of Karl Malone has happened to the Jazz (49-33, 5th in Western Conference), who have inexplicably fallen behind 2-1 against a clearly shorthanded opponent? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to what has been going on out in Utah over the last year, then their performance in this series probably hasn’t been all that surprising. Indeed, this is a team that barring a shocking turn and run to the Western Conference Finals is in all likelihood heading towards blowing it all up. So, how did it come to this, you ask? At the root of their issues is the passive-aggressive tension between the two pillars of the franchise, (towering defensive stalwart) Rudy Gobert (15.6 PTS, 71.3% FG, 69.0% FT, 14.7 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 2.1 BLK, 24.7 PER), and (explosive Guard) Donovan Mitchell (25.9 PTS, 44.8% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 4.2 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 21.6 PER). What once appeared to be one of the more promising young tandems in the Association was effectively derailed during the pandemic, with the former unfortunately serving as its face, particularly at the beginning when he was the first major player to test positive for the virus. When business reconvened in the Bubble, (Head Coach) Quin Snyder’s troops were unable to recapture their form and were promptly eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The following season they would establish themselves as the no. one overall seed heading into the postseason, only to once again meet defeat prematurely, this time to the shorthanded Clippers (sound familiar?). During that period, the franchise was bought by (billionaire) Ryan Smith, inked Gobert to a mammoth five-year/$205 million extension and welcomed (longtime Celtics’ Executive of Basketball Ops) Danny Ainge into the fold as Alternate Governor and CEO. However, rather than galvanize the club as it transitions into a new era, the cracks in the firmament have been exposed and exploited over the course of the current campaign. Following a stellar 28-10 start, the Jazz would go on to drop fourteen of their next sixteen games as both Gobert and Mitchell would be absent due to injuries and illness. Though they would regain their footing heading into the All-Star Break, Utah largely treaded water afterwards with a 13-11 record down the stretch, ultimately landing in the fifth seed out West. During this period, they suffered a number of monumental collapses, wasting more 20-point leads than any other team in the playoffs, which at some point has appeared to affect them mentally. Now they find themselves trailing against another shorthanded opponent with few solutions at their disposal. Through three games in this series, Utah hasn’t had many problems on the offensive end, shooting a solid 48.3% from the field, with Mitchell averaging a robust 32.7 points and (veteran sharpshooter) Bojan Bogdanovic (18.1 PTS, 45.5% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 85.8% FT, 4.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 15.7 PER) chipping in with 25.0 points, while (reigning Sixth Man of the Year) Jordan Clarkson (16.0 PTS, 41.9% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 82.8% FT, 3.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 14.9 PER) had added 15.0 points on a torrid 63.0% shooting. The problem though, has been on the defensive end, where the Mavs have completely taken them out of their game, and effectively taken Gobert off the court. So, how is it that a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who is still very much in the prime of his career has been rendered inert to the point where he can’t even be played for long stretches of action? Well, as the Clippers mercilessly exploited the last summer, Gobert’s dominating presence in the paint is juxtaposed by his weaknesses further away from the rim, particularly in the pick and roll, and even more so on smaller opponents on the perimeter. In today’s game, Centers MUST be able to step away from their comfort zone and closet on corner shooters, and the French international has proven unwilling and incapable of doing so, with opponents all-too eager to go small and spread them out, forcing Synder to reluctantly remove arguably the greatest frontcourt defender of this generation. As you can imagine, when you take Gobert out of the equation, the proverbial floodgates tend to open, with opponents seeing the green light and slashing right to the rim. The other problem is that the 29-year-old isn’t enough of an offensive weapon to justify keeping on the floor, further creating a problem for the Jazz. Throughout this series, Dallas has TORCHED them from the perimeter (40.5%), outscoring them by a whopping SIXTY-SIX points over the course of three games, while proving unable of harassing them with only EIGHTEEN turnovers thus far, which equates to a paltry average of SIX per contest. Snyder’s gameplan on the offensive end has revolved around this team being one of the most prolific in the league at shooting the three, but as we’ve seen thus far, they’ve been completely outmatched in that regard; Utah made (13.5) and attempted (40.3) the second-most three-pointers in the NBA this season, but in this series have knocked down a dismal 27-of-79 attempts (34.2%), with Mitchell struggling in particular on 6-of-24 shooting (25.0%). In what has so often been referred to as a make or miss league, this team simply hasn’t made enough shots, and it’s hard to imagine a reality in which those shots are going to suddenly start falling given the struggles they’ve endured thus far. And if they can’t manage to turn the tide of this series and are eventually eliminated in the first round for the third time in the last four years, then MAJOR changes should be coming to Salt Lake City. Rumors of potential trade packages for Gobert have been swirling for months, while the status of Snyder has been in question as well, with the 55-year-old being linked with the (currently open) Lakers’ job, and the Spurs if the venerable Gregg Popovich finally decides to step down from his post. Snyder has been in Utah for eight years now, amassing a solid 372-264 record (.585), but these seismic changes in the executive branch of the organization coupled with a multitude of early postseason exits could finally spell the end of his tenure with the franchise.