Since the Utah Jazz blew a series of leads late in the regular season and showed themselves to be a mentally fragile group of guys whose on-court contradictions were more strained by each successive game, they have attempted (in theory, anyway) to rally together for a playoff run against a four seed without its best player under the tried-and-true banner of “Nobody believes in us!” Through three games, they have proven that everyone was right not to believe in them.
Last night’s Game 3 loss to the Mavericks felt like a dam breaking for Utah. The Jazz are supposed to have the most imposing home court advantage in the league, the two best players in this series, and every reason, including the frayed existence of their all-star core, to take it to the Mavericks. Yet they’ve been outplayed and have looked dazed the entire series. Last night wasn’t all that different, as they spotted Dallas a big lead, mounted an impressive comeback, then turned back into pumpkins when the clock struck midnight. Let’s start with the on-court stuff, since that’s simpler to diagnose.
Without Luka Doncic, the Mavericks like to play five-out ball, relying on Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie to break down their defenders and initiate scramble sequences that lead to open threes. The Jazz are uniquely susceptible to this sort of style, as Rudy Gobert gives them both the best rim protector in the game but also a mismatch to be hunted and exposed 30 feet from the basket. As Joe Ingles is off the team and no longer in the mix, they also sport exactly one above-average perimeter defender (Royce O’Neal) and therefore can’t contain the dribble actions that the Mavericks rely on. What is left instead is this.
Brunson in particular was unstoppable. He dropped 31 and five last night, giving him 72 points and one single turnover in the last two Mavs wins. He got into the paint seemingly at will, helping the Mavericks hit 18 threes, including 11-for-17 from their bench unit, all of whom are players who need others to create for them. O’Neal, whose whole job can be summed up as “Do not let Jalen Brunson shred our defense” let Jalen Brunson shred his team’s defense, to his great chagrin and despite his best efforts to fuck Brunson up.
Dallas had leads as large as 17 over halfway through the third quarter, though Utah roared back. The circumstances of their comeback highlighted Utah’s flaws. They got all their good work done in the late-third and early fourth quarters, in smallball units where Gobert was on the bench and Donovan Mitchell got to target the suspect lateral movement abilities of Davis Bertans. Mitchell indeed got his, scoring 32 and punishing Bertans repeatedly, and the Jazz got within one point with six-and-a-half minutes left.
Here is where things went sideways. Brunson and Dinwiddie took control of the game, responding to Utah’s raised intensity levels by javelining themselves into the teeth of the defense and challenging Utah’s defensive bulwark. Rather than keep up the concerted pressure that brought them back into the game, the Jazz folded. It was a fairly shocking thing to see on a home court that usually cows opponents. I am not in the Jazz locker room, though one does not need to be to see how broken this team is. They are not fighting for each other aside form isolated spurts, they don’t defend as a unit or as individuals, they fold at the first sign of trouble, and their Gobert-and-Mitchell-led schemes are easily counterable. The Jazz were the one seed in last year’s playoffs, and aside from ditching Ingles, they have the same core that earned them the top spot. It doesn’t make sense in purely basketball terms that they could crumble like this. All that’s left is to see what form the denouement takes. They could still beat the Mavericks, unless Doncic comes back healthy, but even then, the Jazz are running on fumes. And why would anyone still pick them to win this series? Brunson has been the best player through three games, and it’s not even close. The Jazz have ceded the home court advantage they stole in Game 1, and all they’ve done this season is get worse as circumstances become more demanding.
The Mavericks, without Doncic, are admittedly a horrid matchup for the Jazz, but also, you cannot let Maxi Kleber turn into Dirk Nowitzki, and matchup woes do not nearly account for how clearly fractured they are. The Mitchell-Gobert partnership looks doomed as hell. Jalen Brunson has earned himself a shit ton of money this offseason, and also the respect of the rest of the NBA for putting the final nail in this duo’s coffin.