The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.
What We Saw
The Mavericks made almost every clutch three-point shot down the stretch on Monday, but it was the one they missed that was the most telling. Up by five with a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter, Jalen Brunson called for yet another screen to get Donovan Mitchell switched on him. All quarter long, as Brunson completed what became a career-high 41-point performance, the Mavs point guard hunted the Utah star.
Finally, after being picked on in the previous three possessions, Mitchell didn’t want anything to do with it. He just walked away from the screen.
With Mitchell out of the action and Royce O’Neal stuck on a screen, the lane was wide open for Brunson. Rudy Gobert had to rotate over and clean up the mess, leaving Dorian Finney-Smith with a wide-open look in the corner. Finney-Smith didn’t connect, but the Mavericks made so many more, shooting 47 percent from three and hitting 11 out of 22 from the corners.
You can thank Brunson for that. Those looks were a byproduct of Utah’s guards being unable to stay in front of Brunson on the most special night of his NBA career. This performance was another milestone on his path to become one of the better guards in the NBA, a trajectory not many believed in but one you could envision if you looked hard enough. Brunson outplaying Mitchell on a big stage was a pinnacle of the Mavericks’ season.
But it wasn’t just him. All season long, Jason Kidd went out of his way to build a positive environment and instill confidence in his players. He practiced what he preached by continuing to play Maxi Kleber during the worst shooting stretch of his career. In my last piece before the playoffs, I singled out Kleber as the player who could make or break Dallas. Well, he certainly made them in this game. Kleber hit on 8 of his 11 shots from beyond the arc, fought for his life against Gobert to grab rebounds in the clutch, and was the backbone on defense.
We knew the Mavericks would need an outlier shooting performance from a player such as Kleber to steal a game with Luka Doncic in street clothes. I would lie if I said I trusted this to happen. But I think Kidd did, and that is what really mattered at the end. —Iztok Franko
What It Felt Like
The most significant Mavericks game in the American Airlines Center since Vince Carter’s buzzer-beater against San Antonio in 2014.
There have been more spectacular ones, most of which are plot points on Luka Doncic’s timeline as he rounds into a Hall of Famer. More emotional ones, too; those involve Dirk Nowitzki. But it has been eight long years—nearly 700 games—since we’ve watched 48 minutes of basketball that meant more to the team than last night’s game. Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber, an odd couple if there ever was one, played Butch and Sundance, staging a two-man offensive in the face of low odds and lower hope.
Except, in the movie, they get gunned down. On Monday night in the American Airlines Center, they rode out victorious, high in their saddles on the road to Utah, where they may just find the cavalry in the form of Doncic. Less than five minutes made the difference—from the Mavericks exiting down 0-2, probably doomed, to very much alive in this series at one game apiece. Brunson is the reason. The Mavericks won because he willed it, from the rocket-fueled 18-point first quarter through the slithering drive-and-kicks he ran time and again in the fourth.
A year ago, this would have been unfathomable. Even three days ago, it felt highly unlikely. So much of this roster, understandably, is straining to shoulder new expectations in Doncic’s absence. Dorian Finney-Smith is here to score 11 points, not 17. Dwight Powell is around to finish others’ plays, not engineer his own. Spencer Dinwiddie thrives when a defense is sucked in by Doncic’s gravitational pull. Without it, he has flailed.
A year ago, Brunson was no different, swarmed into submission by the Clippers’ length. In Game 1, he was pedestrian, his high scoring total blunted by inefficiency. Last night, he was immaculate: the fifth Maverick to ever score 40 points in a playoff game and the only one to do so without recording a single turnover.
But it wouldn’t have mattered had Kleber not emerged from his doldrums to do something even more improbable. The statline, sure, but the assertiveness: the skittish player of February and March became someone far more resolute. It is the best postseason game he’s ever played and the best he probably ever will, which was exactly right for the stage and the occasion. Everything felt big, grand, important. Foreign feelings. Welcome ones. —Mike Piellucci