For months now, a Utah Jazz matchup against the Dallas Mavericks in Round 1 looked like the most likely possibility. It took the whole season to confirm that the Jazz would be headed to Dallas in mid-April, but odds won out this time.
And now what? After an up-and-down season in which the Jazz insisted that the playoffs were all that mattered, it’s time for them to back up their words against a tough Dallas team — one that might be significantly shorthanded. What are the biggest factors that will determine who wins the series? Let’s dive deep into what’s to come.
1. When will Luka Doncic be available? How will Jazz perform without him on the court?
There’s still significant details unknown about the status of Luka Doncic’s strained left calf. In particular, whether he’ll be available for Game 1, whether and when he’ll return during the series, and whether he might face limitations in minutes played or even plain on-court effectiveness are all still up in the air.
Doncic is an undoubted top-10 NBA player, and is the Mavericks’ north star. If they can advance in these playoffs, it’ll be because of his brilliance pushing them forward. Dallas does have a good collection of role players around him, but no one else who has the experience of taking on big numbers of possessions in the playoffs without the Slovenian.
It’s worth noting that the Mavs have been able to outscore teams without Doncic on the floor this season, though most of those minutes came against opposing bench lineups. Overall, they have a +4.3 net rating without Doncic on the floor this year — interestingly, none of those lineups without Doncic played any more than 100 possessions all season long.
On the other hand, in their four matchups this season, the Jazz have outscored the Mavs without Doncic on the floor. That’s only by a measly 2.8 points per 100 possessions, and they’ll need to find consistency in regularly beating those lineups, rather than just holding steady, if they want to have comfortable wins in the series.
In particular, the Jazz will need to guard Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie well. Both are averaging 16 points per game in a Mavericks uniform this season, and both have shown an ability to find success against the meager Jazz perimeter defense.
2. Defending Doncic pick and rolls
To the degree Doncic is available to play, he’ll be the Mavericks’ centerpiece. Just look at Luka Doncic’s pick and roll statistics via courtesy of Synergy Sports:
There’s a big gap between how effective the Mavs are when Doncic is the one actually shooting after a pick and roll compared to when he’s passing to one of his teammates. He’s just about equally effective in finding corner 3-point shooters or his roll man in the pick and roll — a rarity among pick-and-roll ballhandlers — but if you can get him to keep the ball, you’re going to be in better shape.
So given that, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to trap Doncic, right? Here’s how he performs in pick-and-roll, single-coverage.
The strategy is clear: push the defender over the screen to force Doncic into the paint, but prevent him from getting all the way to the basket — and prevent the lob, too. Luckily, Rudy Gobert is employed by the Jazz. He’ll be sitting in the paint, and is probably the most effective human alive at preventing full-blown layups and lobs at the same time.
You can’t truly stop Doncic, but limiting him to 1 point or so per possession rather than 1.2 is exactly the kind of margin that would go a long way towards the Jazz winning the series.
Who will his primary defender be? This year, Royce O’Neale has garnered the vast majority of tough defensive matchups, but Danuel House Jr. has been more effective since the Jazz acquired him. Which player to choose will be one of Quin Snyder’s most important decisions from the beginning of the series.
3. When will the Mavericks go small, and how effective will it be?
Everyone knows at this point that the Jazz are at their most vulnerable when opposing teams play small, pull Gobert away from the rim, and then attack. It’s that formula the Los Angeles Clippers used last year to earn just obscene offensive ratings, winning four games in a row to quickly end Utah’s season.
And here’s the bad news for the Jazz: Dallas is really well set up to play small-ball for a good portion of the series, if not a majority of it.
In the regular season, the Mavs played 1,485 possessions without a traditional center — and outscored teams by 8.8 points per 100 possessions while doing it, per Cleaning The Glass. The most frequently used lineups put Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber as the four and five men in the lineup, both who are capable of eating up a lot of space with their length while knocking down big threes on the other end. Then, they can play some combination of Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Spencer Dinwiddie and Josh Green in the first three spots.
Trade deadline acquisition Davis Bertans could add in a wrinkle. too. Not only is he a 3-point threat, he can make deep 3-point shots, and at volume, too. The Jazz will probably need to put a wing on him, leaving Gobert or Hassan Whiteside to guard Finney-Smith or Bullock, if the Mavs go super small.
Dealing with any of Dallas’ small-ball lineups is going to be extremely difficult. Frankly, they’ll need better defense from Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale than we’ve seen this season, or last year against the Clippers. Perhaps the Jazz’s biggest chance against them is to dominate the offensive glass — those Dallas small lineups have given up an above-average number of offensive rebounds.
4. The transition game
Here’s one thing to know: the Mavericks hardly run at all on offense.
They are the league’s 29th ranked transition team, ahead of only the lowly Houston Rockets. They use a possession in transition on just 12% of trips down the floor, and also rank 28th in how effective those possessions are when they do it. That’s very useful, because the Jazz have proven to be relatively weak in defending transition this year — including and especially at the end of their fourth-quarter losses.
But the Mavericks probably won’t run enough to reliably take advantage of that, which means that the Jazz can more frequently use their sixth-ranked half-court defense.
How about on the other end of the court? Well, the Jazz frequently talk about how important their transition offense is to their overall efficiency. That’s especially true in semi-transition, when those open Bogdanovic threes and Gobert trailing dunks can be most effective.
But the Mavs are, actually, the third-ranked transition defense in their own right. So the Jazz may get less of those possessions than they’re used to, meaning they’ll have to execute on offense in the half-court. They certainly can, but the baskets won’t be super easy.
5. Can Jazz play their best?
This is as simple as it gets: when the Jazz are playing their best, they’re nearly impossible to stop offensively. They move the ball seamlessly, forcing the defense to bend, then precisely move further to make it break, ending up in wide-open threes or dunks. The Jazz’s spaced-out pick-and-rolls with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley with Rudy Gobert particularly just don’t give other teams any good options out — the Jazz are generally going to get a good shot regardless.
But too frequently this season, they’ve been pushed out of playing their best.
In the fourth quarter of games this season, they slow the offense down and become hesitant, even selfish. Quick-passing possessions have become iso-heavy slogs late, ending up in a lot of stops for the other team. Turnovers have been a problem, too, when defenses ramp up the on-ball pressure and the Jazz struggle to handle it.
There have also been cold stretches for many of the Jazz’s role playing-talent. O’Neale is currently mired in one, for example: over the last eight games, O’Neale is averaging just 4.1 points per game on 23% shooting from the field. Obviously, the Jazz will need more from O’Neale, or they’ll have to go another direction with his minutes.
Mike Conley has looked limited at times this season, and may well need to find a second go-to shot beyond the pull-up three. Hassan Whiteside has been a quality pickup for the Jazz, especially given his minimum contract, but the swings between his good and bad minutes are as wide as any NBA player’s. Rudy Gay’s been in and out of the rotation, can he provide consistency at any point?
Then there’s the other end of the floor to consider, too. Gobert’s as good as it gets defensively, but he needs Mitchell, Conley, Clarkson, O’Neale and House to contain the ballhandlers a little to give him a chance. Unabated 2-on-1s can’t be reliably stopped by anyone, not even Gobert. They’ll need to defend at a much higher level than last year’s playoffs to advance.
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