Mavs Clinch as Injuries, Shooting Woes Doom Jazz
Monday’s Dallas-Utah game could and should have had an epic flavor, a play-in game if there ever was one. The 41-win Dallas Mavericks could clinch a playoff spot – actually, seventh or higher – with a win, while the 40-win Utah Jazz could pull even with their Lone Star adversaries and control the tiebreaker.
Conversely, because another Texas team – Houston – lurked just one game back of Utah and with the tiebreaker edge over both teams, a loss would put either the Jazz or the Mavs at risk of missing the playoffs altogether.
Winner plays on. Loser’s season probably ends on Wednesday night.
It could have been the type of for-the-marbles slugfest fans yearn for in mid April, and it was on track to be one. And then injuries struck… again. A Utah team that was momentarily complete last week (except for Dante Exum, who is out for the entire season) once again had to deal with the absence and struggles of key players due to injury in what was without a doubt their most important game of the year.
Even before the injury bug bit, the Mavs got out to a hot start behind a 10-point first quarter from Dirk Nowitzki, but Utah chipped away with earnest defense and cut the Dallas lead to 24-23 with a Joe Ingles three. Minutes later, they were still within striking distance (31-26) when the complexion of the game was completely altered with 7:41 to play in the half.
Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward converged to challenge a pick-and-roll dunk attempt by Mavs rookie Salah Mejri, and Gobert came down on the Tunisian center’s foot. He rolled his ankle badly, and after rolling around on the floor for a minute, finally got a Utah timeout so he could limp to the locker room. He wouldn’t return, and was later seen .
On a different night, the Jazz might have been able to survive without their defensive centerpiece. But Derrick Favors was already hobbled from right knee soreness, and was clearly not his usual self. Favors is less of a pure rim protector than Gobert, but his usual mobility out in space gives the Jazz a ton of freedom to play with traps, hedges and even liberal switching. But it was clear as Favors limped around on defense and failed to explode off the court with his usual athleticism for rebounds that his mobility was limited. He was questionable for the game to begin with, and when he was cleared to play, Jazz coach Quin Snyder opted to bring him off the bench as a way of limiting his minutes and exposure.
That meant a steady diet of guys like Trey Lyles and Trevor Booker looking after one of the best offensive players of the last decade, and the outcome was predictable for Nowitzki and the Mavs, who exploited mistake after mistake.
They started with a simple elbow pindown for Dirk. Lyles went under, and Dirk calmly drilled the 18-footer. Then when Utah tried to ice a pick and roll to the middle, former Jazz man Deron Williams drove right to force a trap, and Lyles didn’t close nearly fast enough. On a pick and roll to the outside, Lyles dropped back to contain, but didn’t recover quickly enough to prevent the German from hitting a three. A drag screen in transition forced Lyles to chase the guard, so Dirk waited for the ball and drew contact on the much smaller Shelvin Mack.
Then Nowitzki went to work scoring over and around Booker, or drawing help and making simple passes for inside buckets.
Even when Utah did the right things, Dallas came away with shots that testified to their confidence, experience, and acceptance of the big moment. On a Nowitzki screen for Wesley Matthews, Hayward fought through and cut off the driving lane – just for Matthews to step back into a 16-footer. Swish.
And that was during the portion of the game when Utah was still keeping it close.
Once Gobert was done (and with Favors obviously affected in his lateral mobility), Snyder decided to rely on a switching defense for almost the entire second half. It never really worked, as the Rick Carlisle-coached Mavs outfit was ready for every possible personnel combination that could occur and surgically punished each awkward matchup.
A lot of Utah’s switches were fairly unnecessary, but a survey of Dallas’ second-half scoring possessions reveals that it wasn’t the over-switching that did Utah in: it was the Mavs’ counter to their next counter. Utah started trapping and hedging as opposed to an all-out switch, but this required bringing some extra help from the weak side. Watch Dallas smartly reverse to open weak side shooters, who thwarted Utah’s comeback attempts with open three after open three.
In the meantime, Utah had its own shooting problems. Hayward and Rodney Hood combined for 2-for-16 from downtown. When two of your best four players are hurt and the other two can’t find bottom, it’s going to be a rough night. The entire Jazz team made just two second-half three-pointers.
The Jazz were still able to make a run, mostly by stringing together a series of stops in the third quarter. During this stretch, they abandoned the switch completely and trusted guys to fight through screens. When they had to trap, they brought the third defender over sooner, which resulted in some Dallas turnovers and Jazz transition points.
Nowitzki finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but former Jazz guards Matthews and Williams inflicted just as much pain on their old club. Williams led the Mavs with 23, while Matthews poured in 20, including two ridiculously tough threes over Hayward.
Speaking of Hayward, the Jazz’s star led all scorers with 26 despite an off shooting night from deep, and also led his team (or tied for the lead) in rebounds (six), assists (four) and blocks (one). Mack had 18, including seven in that too-little-too-late run in the fourth, and Favors scored 11 but grabbed just three rebounds, the obvious byproduct of an injury keeping him earthbound.
With the win, Dallas locks up a playoff spot and avoids a first-round matchup with Golden State, as they’re guaranteed no worse than the seventh seed. They have some small hope at jumping all the way to fifth – with a win over the Spurs and a loss each by Memphis and Portland. More likely, they’ll finish sixth or seventh.
Utah entered the night in control of its own destiny, but now needs help from an unlikely source. Sacramento may actively try to lose on Wednesday, , but even if the Kings’ B-team surprises by beating the Rockets in Houston, Utah would still need to spoil Kobe Bryant’s finale in LA, or else they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.
It’s not what the Jazz expected after winning 10 of 13 games from March into early April, but they’ve lost three of four right when they were at the doorstep of taking this young core to its first collective playoff experience. Dallas, though, is coming into form, with seven wins in their last eight outings as they head into a postseason matchup with, most likely, the Spurs or the Thunder.