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Jalen Brunson Torched Utah’s Shabby Playoff Defense

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Already down a game in their playoff series against the Utah Jazz, and with Luka Doncic on the shelf until God knows when, the Dallas Mavericks needed some things to swing their way in Game 2. Dallas’s red-hot second half of the regular season is at risk of petering out in a first-round series against a lower seed, mostly due to ill-timed bumps and bruises. The team that took the floor Monday night was so hard-up for warm bodies that Jason Kidd gave important first-half minutes to part-timers Trey Burke and Josh Green, the latter of whom is so punchless on offense that the Jazz defended him the way I defend my neighbor’s cat: By maintaining only a vague awareness that he is over there somewhere. Cobbling together enough juice to compete until Doncic is able to return will require that several respectable guys hop into phone booths on their way to the office and emerge as heroes.

Monday night it was fourth-year guard Jalen Brunson who wore the cape. Brunson, who became a regular starter for the first time in his career this season, scored an efficient and career-high 41 points in 42 minutes, and roundly outplayed Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, his Utah counterparts. It was an inspired performance: Brunson’s 21 first-half points kept Dallas close while his teammates struggled to make shots, and he continued to brutalize Utah’s deeply suspect perimeter defense as Spencer Dinwiddie and especially Maxi Kleber started to find their rhythms in the second half. Brunson, standing all of 6-foot-1, also managed to lead the Mavericks in rebounding.

The Jazz elected to defend Brunson primarily with Royce O’Neale, a three-and-D-type wing who often handles tough matchups in order to spare Mitchell and Conley the work. This went very poorly, in no small part because Brunson is a waterbug guard and O’Neale is a positional mismatch, and so O’Neale had a miserable time trying to stay in front of the much quicker Brunson around screens and in space. When Brunson wasn’t just eating up his individual matchup, his penetration was unlocking lovely drive-and-kick sequences that ended with decent three-point attempts. The Mavericks set a new franchise record for made threes, with 22, and per ESPN Stats & Information a whopping 17 of these were uncontested.

Some of this is just what happens when you build your defense around a lumbering behemoth of a center (and especially when the backup to your behemoth center is Hassan Whiteside, the lumberingest, behemothest of all centers): A team that can surround a quick ball-handler with four capable shooters, the way the Mavs do when Kleber is on the floor, is going to cause lots of problems. Over and over again Rudy Gobert would drop frantically into the paint to cut off penetration, and the ball would kick out to the perimeter, and Utah’s defense would come unzipped. This is Dallas’s game-plan, especially without Luka’s shot-making brilliance: “It’s the way Utah plays us, and not having Luka,” Dinwiddie said after the game. “Our emphasis is to crack the paint, and start the blender.”

The framing over the past few seasons has been that this is what makes Gobert shift from an asset to a liability in the playoffs, that the best teams have the personnel to force Gobert to either defend on the perimeter or to abandon a shooter in order to protect the rim. But to me this lets at least one of Gobert’s teammates off the hook. The best and most natural defensive matchup for a player like Jalen Brunson is not Royce O’Neale. It’s Donovan damn Mitchell, who is also 6-foot-1, who is a much more explosive athlete than really anyone else on the floor, and who by reputation is a ferocious perimeter defender. The reason to move Mitchell off of Brunson and onto Dorian Finney-Smith is so that Mitchell will be able to reserve his energy for offense. And, yes, Mitchell is Utah’s best individual scorer and creator, and has had some huge playoff moments in his career. But Mitchell also runs wild with the responsibility: Through two games he’s attempted 59 shots, 24 more than the next closest Jazz player, and his usage is up near 40 percent, the highest so far of any rotation player in the playoffs. It would be one thing if he were lighting it up, but he’s not. His efficiency is way off, his shot selection is butt, and Utah’s offense has slipped in the playoffs from top-of-the-class in the regular season to 11th in a 16-team field.

Donovan Mitchell is real good, but he is very probably not quite as good as he’d have to be to make this all work, requiring a vulnerable positional cross-match and shouldering an offensive workload that approaches the insane heights of Russell Westbrook’s MVP era. While O’Neale was getting dusted by Brunson, Mitchell was expending so much energy hunting terrible hero shots that was too tired to muster up much defensive effort during the game’s decisive sequence:

That’s Mitchell getting absolutely cooked by Spencer Dinwiddie, in a one-point game, inside the final four minutes of regulation. Dinwiddie’s penetration dragged Gobert into the paint—Mitchell was owned so badly that his man was fully between him and the basket after just two dribbles—and left Kleber wide open in the corner. This had been the story of the second half, which saw Kleber knock down six of his career-high eight three-pointers on the night, seven of which were uncontested. Yes, there is the question of what you are supposed to do with Gobert and Whiteside when their defensive assignment is a pick-and-pop shooter, but also that question becomes a lot easier to answer if Utah’s perimeter defenders, you know, do any amount of defending.

I realize I have now turned this Jalen Brunson appreciation blog into a blog about the dysfunctional Utah Jazz. Not entirely! Most teams, if you snatched away their MVP-caliber offensive engine and pointed them at the Utah Jazz, would be screwed. The Mavericks are hanging right in there in this series because Brunson knows his strengths and is fearlessly probing and exploiting Utah’s vulnerabilities. If the Jazz are going to match him with oversized wings, he’s going to give them total hell. The Jazz had a chance to snatch a two-game lead on the road and bring the series back home in total control, but thanks to Brunson and Maxi Kleber the series is still up for grabs, and the pressure is now squarely on the Jazz to work out some adjustments. If they can’t sort out how to stop Brunson, they might soon have a much larger problem on their hands.

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