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
After missing the start of the playoffs due to a strained calf, Luka Doncic needed all of a game and a half to remind everyone why he is the best player in this series. The Jazz were already in enough trouble going into this one level at two games apiece without the Mavericks’ superstar putting his stamp on it. Last night, they got a lot more trouble. Doncic went off in the third quarter, scoring 19 points in a variety of ways, erasing all hope the Jazz had to stay in the game before the final period. It was great to see Playoffs Luka again, having fun on the big stage (as Mike will get to, there was a lot of fun happening in this one). When Doncic is feeling it, basketball can be very simple for these Mavericks.
But under the hood, playoff basketball is also a complex machine that needs fine-tuning from game to game. Utah took Game 4 because Quin Snyder’s group got Rudy Gobert back to patrolling the paint like a French Gendarmerie. In Game 5, with the series entering a critical stage, Jason Kidd responded by playing the ace up his sleeve: Doncic’s favorite play, the “stack” pick-and-roll.
Stack action is a pick-and-roll combined with an additional back screen for the big man defending the original action. It’s been a staple in the Mavericks’ offense the last couple of seasons, because, as ex-Mavs assistant Jenny Boucek once explained, “Luka loves the stack action because when you bring a third defender in there, for him, with his vision and IQ, it adds confusion for the defense.”
And, boy, did the Jazz look confused in this game. The Mavericks ran stack repeatedly, setting a flurry of back screens on Gobert to prevent him from protecting the rim, which resulted in a series of layups and dunks. The Jazz defense tried different coverages, but Doncic always had answers, to the point that a frustrated Snyder talked openly about the struggles with this play in his post-game interview.
We can expect Utah to look for counters when the series returns to Salt Lake City on Thursday for a potentially decisive Game 6. But while the Jazz seem tired and out of ideas, the Mavericks may just be getting started now that their superstar has arrived in these playoffs. —Iztok Franko
What It Felt Like
Fun. So much fun.
Other things, too, but why not start with fun after a win like that? Because it was less a win than a stampede, a trampling, a hundred horses stamping out whatever hope the Jazz mustered up after Saturday’s narrow win in Utah.
Fun is an overcaffeinated Mavs team bouncing off the walls in the first 24 minutes: flinging errant passes, racking up fouls, botching dunks—and still heading into the half up 16. Fun is Mark Followill, the Mavs’ excellent play-by-play man, doing his best Michael Scott and shrieking, “It’s happening! It’s happening!” as Dallas ballooned that lead up to 33 in the third quarter. Fun is the American Airlines Center roaring like a jet engine, including but not limited to “Rudy sucks” chants whenever Gobert hit the free-throw line. Fun is Luka Doncic fueling that third-quarter run by ripping off 11 straight points. And fun is most especially the final three:
Dallas did not play its best game Monday. It wasn’t especially close, either. The defense was suffocating, but the Mavericks couldn’t crack 45 percent shooting from the field or even 30 percent from deep. Until the starters were pulled in the waning minutes, they milked seven total points from their bench, all from Spencer Dinwiddie, who has yet to string together four good quarters in this series. Maxi Kleber, such a linchpin in Games 2 and 3, took all of one shot and missed it.
And, in a way, that was the most fun part of all. It’s almost liberating watching this franchise, this NBA also-ran for so much of the past decade, play the titan and smush a good team like a gnat without needing its A-game. It was easy in a way that Mavericks basketball often hasn’t been and just might be becoming again.
After Game 4, I wrote that this series “is no longer about Dallas versus an overmatched Utah team but Dallas versus itself,” and we should take Game 5 as a course correction. The Mavericks showed up brimming with attitude but only half full of execution, and that was more than enough to record one of the five largest margins of a playoff victory in franchise history.
The story of this series has been written: the Mavericks are a better, tougher basketball team than the Jazz. All that’s missing is an ending. —Mike Piellucci