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 playoffs are about all about adjustments and tough decisions, and for the Utah Jazz, the biggest domino fell way earlier than they could have imagined.
Only three games into the first-round series, facing an underdog team playing without their superstar, Utah benched their defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert. Much of the talk leading up to this series involved wondering how the Mavericks would find a solution to Gobert’s clogging the paint. Instead, the Jazz had to figure out how to clear Gobert out of the lane on the other side. Because when Gobert is in the game, the Mavericks are packing the paint even more than the Jazz. Case in point, Jalen Brunson and Donovan Mitchell are first and third in the playoffs in number of drives, but a help defender has been present on 84 percent of Mitchell’s drives compared to only 62 percent of Brunson’s thus far. And the Jazz—the NBA’s best offense in the regular season—doesn’t have answers for it.
And so, as Utah once again failed to get anything going against the Mavericks’ set defense last night, Quin Snyder swallowed the bitter pill. Down 15 with five and half minutes left in the third quarter, he inserted little-used Eric Paschall as a small-ball center in place of the three-time defensive player of the year. The move did wonders for the Jazz offense. The driving lanes opened up with Gobert’s big body off the floor, leaving Mitchell to score 23 of his 32 points from that point forward, as Utah cut the lead to only one point midway through the fourth quarter.
But the driving lanes opened for Dallas, too. In the minutes when Gobert has been on the floor in this series, 13 percent of the Mavericks’ shot attempts have come at the rim. When he has been on the bench? That number ballooned to 31 percent.
In the end, Utah’s adjustments weren’t enough. They made shots, but the Mavericks made more, with Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie making one big play after another down the stretch. Utah finds itself in a Catch-22: they can’t get into the paint with Gobert on the offensive end of the court, but they can’t keep the Mavericks out of it without him on the defensive end.
Down 2-1 in the series, with Luka Doncic’s comeback looming, it seems the Jazz are running out of adjustments. That leaves Synder to play catch up without even cracking their biggest problem of all. —Iztok Franko
What It Felt Like
A collapse. A capitulation. An NBA team decaying in real-time, rot stripping away the final vestiges of the group that won more regular-season games than any other team just a season ago.
None of that diminishes the Mavericks’ work in what should be a backbreaking Game 3 win in Utah, a place where they’d lost their previous 11 games. Once again, they MacGyvered a path to victory without Luka Doncic. It did not matter that Jalen Brunson, brilliant for a second game, missed the end of the second quarter after getting plowed over by Royce O’Neal, nor that the Mavericks’ foul-burdened big men sat out enough of the third to help the Jazz shave off the majority of Dallas’ 17-point halftime lead. They made Spencer Dinwiddie’s horrific start irrelevant, Dwight Powell’s irrelevance a footnote.
Collective action was the name of this game. Seven Mavericks scored in double figures, and 49 of Dallas’ points came from its bench—more than the previous two games combined. Maxi Kleber stayed hot, Davis Bertans had his playoff moment, and 21-year-old Josh Green leveled up once more. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock wrung every last ounce of defensive energy out of their legs in two more 40-minute nights. And when the Jazz crept within a single point midway through the fourth, Brunson and Dinwiddie—whose game zapped to life like a jumpstarted car battery after posterizing Rudy Gobert—slammed the door. It was more gutty, steely-eyed work from an outfit becoming known for precisely that.
But this was about Utah finally succumbing to what they’ve courted since last year’s second-round meltdown to the Clippers. They lollygagged out of the gate on a night when they needed an emphatic response on their home court, ceding momentum to a Mavericks team that, sans Doncic, has less talent and fewer bodies. Now Utah is 48 hours away from Luka’s likely return, needing three games out of four to move on.
In this series, the Jazz have often looked the part of a stale roster that wants to win less than it wants this all to end. Soon, it will. This era of Utah basketball has one foot in the grave. Color me shocked if Doncic doesn’t shovel the final clumps of dirt on it. —Mike Piellucci