2022 Playoffs: West First Round | Mavericks (4) vs. Jazz (5)

Series preview: Mavs hope to keep rolling against struggling Jazz

If calf injury doesn't slow him, Luka Doncic could be poised to produce an epic series and carry Dallas into the semifinals.

A healthy Luka Doncic could prove too tall a task for Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz to slow down.

Mavericks-Jazz series coverage
2022 NBA playoffs schedule

The Jazz and Mavericks head to the first round drifting in opposite directions, with Dallas winning 20 of 27 and the Jazz dropping seven of their last 11, blowing leads of 25 to the Clippers and 21 to the Warriors. When the calendar flipped to 2022, they were top-three in the West. But the postseason serves as a reset, and in a series that should be closely contested, anything’s possible. 

The Jazz once again proved to be a solid regular-season team for the most part, riding the distinct skills of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to one win shy of 50. The core of the club remained intact from a season ago — with the exception Joe Ingles, who was traded at midseason — and this familiarity served Utah well. The Jazz are anxious to recover from a pair of painful recent playoff exits, in 2020 to Denver and last season to the Clippers (who were without Kawhi Leonard). 

Can the Mavs beat the Jazz if Luka Doncic is out or hobbled in the series?

The Mavericks were rejuvenated by a midseason trade that brought Spencer Dinwiddie, whose late-game heroics upon arrival were welcomed by a club that leans heavily on Doncic for that role. Dallas will often use three guards — Doncic, Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson — to their benefit and dare teams to match up with them. Still, the Mavericks could use some help from the bigs, and were pleased when  Dwight Powell responded as of late. Also, Dorian Finney-Smith has averaged almost 14 points since February.   

Three things to watch

1. Will Luka Doncic be too much to handle? The All-Star just put together an MVP-worthy season by leading the Mavericks in scoring, assists, rebounds (which was especially impressive, at 9.1) and steals, ranking among the league leaders in all categories. He also is masterful in exploiting isolation mismatches, and in the past, Dallas created switches to put Doncic on Rudy Gobert. Ordinarily this sounds insane, given Gobert’s defense, but the crafty Luka won those battles, By the way, Doncic is dealing with a calf injury, but has almost a week to rest. 

2. Can Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell get along? The two All-Stars are saying all the right things, but there seems to be smoke if not fire between them, just going by body language (from Mitchell when Gobert fumbles a pass, from Gobert when he doesn’t get touches). Coach Quin Snyder pleaded for outsiders to refrain from breaking them apart, as if fans and media actually hold such power. In any event, winning cures all, and the best way to squelch all speculation is by winning a round or two and keep it moving. 

3. What if Utah’s 3-point shots don’t fall? This has always been an issue with the Jazz, who rely on the long-ball more than most teams. When they’re efficient, they’re tough to beat. When they’re misfiring, the Jazz become unglued only because they lack the personnel and a system for a Plan B (no interior scoring, few players who can hit mid-range jumpers). 

Number to know

9.4 — Luka Doncic averaged 9.4 minutes per possession, the second highest average for any player in nine seasons of player tracking. Doncic ranked second in the league in usage rate (a career-high 36.8%) and was assisted on only 14.2% of his buckets, the lowest rate among 215 players with at least 200 total field goals. The Mavs added a playmaker in Spencer Dinwiddie at the deadline, but Doncic has actually averaged 9.7 minutes of possession since Dinwiddie’s arrival, up from 9.2 minutes prior to that.

If Doncic is healthy, that number should get even higher in the playoffs. As the Mavs lost to the LA Clippers in seven games last year, Doncic averaged an amazing 12.1 minutes of possession and registered a usage rate of 39.1%, the second highest mark in the last 25 postseasons. And this year’s first-round opponent, isn’t the type of team that will take the ball out of Doncic’s hands. In the regular season, 21.0% of the Jazz’s opponents’ possessions, the league’s highest rate, were pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions. And as the two teams split their season series, the Mavs recorded assists on only 50.9% of their field goals, their lowest rate vs. any Western Conference opponent.

— John Schuhmann

The pick 

When Tim Hardaway Jr., was lost for the year and the Mavericks finally ran out of patience with Kristaps Porzingis and traded him, Dallas seemed like a team caught in transition during the season, never a comfortable position. But Doncic suddenly went on a tear, and here they are. He seems poised to produce an epic series and you wonder if Utah, a poor defensive team outside of Gobert, has anyone capable of stopping him. The sense is Luka will put his signature stamp on this first round. Mavericks in 6. 

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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