This Saturday, the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks will begin their best-of-seven series. The teams split their season series 2-2, and they're relatively evenly matched in many ways. So what will make the difference in this series? I've identified five points to watch for that could swing the series.
Before I get into it, I'll address the elephant in the room. Dallas star Luka Doncic suffered a calf strain in his last regular-season game. The Mavericks PR has given no timetable for his return. Adam Bushman wrote about how that injury could affect the series here. As for this piece, I will proceed as if Doncic will play because he might.
Can Donovan Mitchell figure out the Mavs defense?
In his last three playoff series, Donovan Mitchell has been unguardable. He's been nothing short of a superstar, boasting a gaudy stat line of 33.9 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game on 64% true shooting. The Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers were all at a loss for how to guard him.
This time, Mitchell matches up with a team that’s given him some trouble. The Dallas Mavericks are a solid defensive team and have seemed to frustrate Mitchell. In his last two games against Dallas, he’s scored only 14.5 points while shooting 28% from the field and 23% from three.
Dallas is sure to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Mitchell on defense. He'll see double-teams, traps, and everything else Jason Kidd can think of. If Donovan can find the chink in their armor, he'll exploit it. The outcome of this battle will go a long way in determining the series winner.
How will Utah guard Luka Doncic?
Luka Doncic e of the most prolific offensive players in the NBA, and he's been even more effective in the playoffs. Through 13 career playoff games, Doncic has put up 33.5 points, 9.5 assists, and 8.8 rebounds per game. Much like Donovan Mitchell's recent playoff performances, Doncic has been a dominant force.
Utah has publicly struggled with perimeter defense in its last two series losses. Teams have been picking on the lack of Jazz defenders outside of Rudy Gobert. Fans should expect Dallas to force the Jazz to switch regularly to get Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and others into isolation against Doncic. Utah has added Danuel House and Juancho Hernangomez to the roster to combat this issue, and both have fought their way into the rotation.
House, in particular, can be of use against Doncic. He is adept at fighting through screens, getting physical, and challenging shots. He has both the length and size requisite to bother Doncic and won't be easily switched off of him. Quin Snyder has recently increased House's minutes, and I believe doing so again for the playoffs would be a brilliant move.
Even if Hernangomez and House aren't guarding Doncic one-on-one every play, having two additional defenders on the court will be massively important for the Jazz. When Rudy Gobert has to step out of the paint to defend a shooter, which he will, he'll need help protecting the basket. Both House and Hernangomez can provide that help.
Utah's other scorers
While Donovan Mitchell's scoring will be a critical contribution, the Jazz will need others to step up. When Mitchell is double-teamed well beyond the three-point line, he'll need to rely on someone to take pressure off him.
Mike Conley is the first option after Mitchell. In his 11 playoff games for Utah, Conley has been excellent, with averages of 17.4 points, 6.5 assists, and 50.7% shooting on three-pointers. In the series against Memphis, Conley was the one who took over late in many of the games. He utilized the extra space provided by Mitchell's gravity to manipulate the Grizzlies' defense. The Jazz will be needing that version of Conley again.
For offensive production, Quin Snyder will also look to Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson. Neither has been able to have a massive impact for Utah in the postseason, but they're both capable of doing so. If one or both of them have a strong showing in this series, that will take a massive amount of pressure off Donovan Mitchell.
Conley, Clarkson, and Bogdanovic have all played well against Dallas since joining the Jazz, and all have shot well from three.
- Mike Conley: 15.1 points, 42.3% 3P
- Jordan Clarkson: 17.1 points, 39.7% 3P
- Bojan Bogdanovic: 20.5 points, 43.9% 3P
Utah's offense will open if they can keep up that type of production in this series.
The Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie backcourt
Jalen Brunson is the exact type of player that can give the Jazz trouble. He's quick, he's smart, he can control an offense, and he can shoot. Between him and Doncic, the Mavericks like to have at least one creator on the court. With the addition of Spencer Dinwiddie at the trade deadline, they gained a third ball-handler to pressure the defense.
In his 23 games with the Mavs, Dinwiddie has been on fire. He's averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting the lights out. This added weapon means Utah can't completely overplay Doncic, which spells trouble. The Jazz will need to do their homework and be ready to defend each of these three because they could all go off for 30 at any time.
Can Rudy Gobert dominate?
Rudy Gobert is the talk of the NBA whenever the Utah Jazz lose in the playoffs. He's often criticized and blamed for Utah's issues. Some criticisms have been fair; many have not. Regardless, now is the time for Gobert to prove the doubters wrong. While he's been good in the playoffs throughout his career, he's yet to have a signature game, a dominant series, or an inspiring playoff run. Now is the time to do it. The Jazz have had a turbulent season. They need a leader to step up.