Despite not having Luka Doncic in the lineup, the Dallas Mavericks pulled off a 110-103 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 2 of their first-round series. The leader in Dallas’ efforts was Jalen Brunson, who finished with a career-high 41 points.
Brunson experienced a major bounce-back performance after shooting just 9-24 (37.5 percent) from the floor in Game 1. He followed that up by shooting a staggering 15-25 (60 percent) overall and 6-10 (60 percent) on 3s. Keep in mind, that he also didn’t record a single turnover and was the lead initiator for an offense that turned it over just three times overall.
“Most importantly, I think in Game 1 I missed a lot of shots that I normally make, so I wasn’t trying to go away from that necessarily,” Brunson said. “I think the biggest takeover from Game 1 was kind of just staying with it, staying patient, and just playing my game.
“I didn’t have to change too much besides just slowing down and just concentrating a little more and just continuing to play hard for as long as I was out there.”
A significant difference in Brunson’s outburst compared to his first outing was his aggression in seeking out pull-up 3s. Early in Game 2, he made it a point to raise up and fire when the defense went under a handoff and a ball screen he was involved in.
With Brunson feeling it from deep early on, he even pulled up in transition when Donovan Mitchell was sagging off to favor playing the drive. The Mavericks went 0-6 on off the dribble 3s as a team in Game 1, but in Game 2, Brunson threaded three makes in the first quarter alone.
“I saw Donovan back up a little bit and I kind of had a rhythm going into that (third 3-point) shot and I just took my time and shot it,” Brunson said. “I saw him back up a little bit and it gave me the go-ahead to go ahead and shoot it, and it went in.”
When shooting 3s, the value of those shots is not just about the points it can add to the scoreboard when they go in. Success on these looks can make the defense adjust how they are approaching their assignments. This was evident with how Mitchell fell victim to Brunson’s hesitation dribble in transition — resulting in a blow-by for a finish at the rim.
After experiencing the impact of the Jazz’s shot blockers in Game 1, the Mavericks clearly understood there was a need to adjust their approach when non-shooting threats were on the court.
The Mavericks used more empty corner attacks to involve Brunson in situations where he had space to break down Royce O’Neale and get to his spots for favorable looks. Without a help defender being in a position to impact the play, it was all on Brunson to execute and he made the most of his opportunities.
“He didn’t wait,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “He took up the space and was aggressive from the jump ball.
“We talked about it earlier. Don’t wait. Get to your spot and do what you do best. I thought he ran the team extremely well and he found the spots to score and he made plays.”
In addition to going empty corner, the Mavericks opted to spread the Jazz unit out by deploying plug-and-play lineups with shooting threats at every spot. This opened up the option of using a guard to set a screen to get a longer wing defender like Danuel House Jr. switched off him with space to get deep on a drive.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert was placed in a situation where he had to account for Dorian Finney-Smith while trying to make his presence felt in the paint. Brunson was unbothered by Gobert — putting the Jazz defense in a vulnerable position. The rest of the unit was face guarding shooters, so Mike Conley had to hold his own and was unable to do so.
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With the Jazz continuing to face guard shooters off the ball, Brunson continued to operate knowing he had to get to a spot and be aggressive as a scorer. Hassan Whiteside played closer to the level in a high-ball screen Brunson was running to prevent the pull-up 3, so Brunson made it a point to get the on-ball defender on his hip.
As a result of Brunson using pace on the drive, he forced Whiteside to recover back to Dwight Powell as the drive progressed — creating a favorable opportunity to get to his floater. These were the types of shots Brunson alluded to missing in Game 1 that he normally makes.
While the Mavericks did a lot of damage using small-ball lineups in the second half with Maxi Kleber at the 5, Brunson went to work with Powell in the two-man game. The reads were simple; if the on-ball defender goes over, get into the gap and take what the defense is giving up.
“I was just playing how the defense was kind of giving me,” Brunson said. “Just seeing how they were defending certain things (and) just stepping in confidentially into certain shots.”
When O’Neale went over the handoff to kick off this stretch of the game, Brunson used a hostage dribble to get him sealed on his back. Gobert was engaged in a deep drop — leaving a gap for Brunson to get to his floater in short range.
Even when O’Neale went over a ball screen, Brunson snake dribbled to get into the gap and decided to get back behind the 3-point line for a pull-up jumper. This is a significant change in approach for a guard who was turning down pull-up opportunities from 3 in Game 1 to actively seek out perimeter shooting chances.
When the Mavericks decided to go small in the fourth quarter, Brunson knew it was time to attack in isolation situations to take full advantage of the spacing afforded him by his teammates. He took it a step further by using a wing screener — knowing the Jazz tend to switch 1-4.
“They’re a great team, they’re well-coached,” Kidd said. “But if we can continue to attack the paint and make them play defense, we truly believe we’re going to get an open shot if we are patient. And (Monday) we got all the open shots we wanted and we made them.”
Whether it was Conley or Bojan Bogdanovic, Brunson shifted them off the bounce while Gobert was unable to impact in help. It was a significant change in fate from Game 1 where the Mavericks were relying on ball screens and sorely struggled to get quality looks getting downhill.
The aggression Brunson played with was clear when he immediately looked to attack Jordan Clarkson after drawing him as the on-ball defender to start a possession. If there’s space and a defender he can break down, Brunson was getting to work.
It remains to be seen if Doncic will be available to play in Game 3. Regardless, the Mavericks are seeing real growth from Brunson as a scorer and willingness to seek out 3-point chances.
The expectation isn’t for Brunson to go for 40 points every game from here on out. However, the Mavericks need him to continue to be aggressive in getting to his spots when he has space to operate. Perhaps they will look to go small more and rely on their backcourt to break down the Jazz on-ball liabilities off the dribble.
The possibilities get intriguing when thinking about Doncic making his return to the lineup at some point in this series. When that happens, the Mavericks will have multiple threats to attack weak on-ball defenders while also affording Brunson more opportunities to attack off the catch, which he is highly efficient in doing.