February 24, 2024

With a month left in the regular season, it was already looking like the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz would face each other in the first round as the two teams seesawed between the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the Western Conference for quite awhile. Dallas ultimately edged out Utah, as Luka Doncic’s post-All-Star break vaulted him into the MVP conversation.

Until the final day of the regular season, this series had the makings of being a genuinely exciting one. But then Doncic went down with a calf sprain in Dallas’ final contest, and his status for the first round remains murky. The Mavericks haven’t officially ruled him out, and have only said that he has a calf strain after undergoing an MRI. But Doncic’s injury situation automatically dampens this series going forward. That doesn’t mean Dallas can automatically be written off, but it does suck some of the fun out of this series. 

Utah will try to take advantage of what could be a weakened Dallas roster, and the Mavericks will try to stay afloat with guys like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie leading the way if Doncic is out. 

Ahead of Game 1 on Saturday, here’s everything you need to know about this first-round matchup.

(4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) Utah Jazz 

All times Eastern

  • Game 1: Jazz 99, Mavericks 93
  • Game 2: Mavericks 110, Jazz 104
  • Game 3: Mavericks 126, Jazz 118
  • Game 4: Jazz 100, Mavericks 99
  • Game 5: Mavericks 102, Jazz 77
  • Game 6: Mavericks 98, Jazz 96

1. The health of Doncic

This is going to be the biggest storyline to watch over the course of this series. The latest report suggests that Doncic could miss at least the first game of this series, and potentially even the second one as well. Head coach Jason Kidd said on Tuesday that Doncic has been in “good spirits,” and guard Brunson said he’s “very optimistic” that Doncic plays in Game 1. However, as optimistic as Brunson may be, this will just come down to how Doncic’s calf is responding to the treatment it’s receiving. 

The worst thing the Mavericks and Doncic could do is rush his return back and risk further injury. But it’s clear that the Mavs will only go as far as Doncic can take them. There hasn’t been a player in the league who has been more important to his team than Doncic has been since he entered the league. The 22-year-old guard has ranked first in usage percentage in the NBA since he was drafted No. 3 overall back in 2018. When he’s not racking up north of 28 points a night, he’s pulling off one-of-a-kind passes to teammates open in the corner. Without Doncic orchestrating on offense and exploiting the defense any chance he gets, it takes away the biggest edge the Mavericks have in this series.

With his status up in the air, Dallas will turn to Brunson and Dinwiddie to fill his big shoes. Both players have been integral to the Mavericks’ success this season, but as great as they’ve been they don’t provide everything that Doncic can offer. Still, if Brunson and Dinwiddie can consistently put up points, and if guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock can knock down their 3s when they get open looks, they still have a good shot in this series.  

2. Utah shutting out the noise

The playoffs offer every team a chance at a fresh start, and there perhaps isn’t a team in this field that could use one more than the Jazz. Just within the last couple months alone, the Jazz have dealt with reports of their two stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert not getting along. There’s been lengthy press conference rants from head coach Quin Snyder downplaying the team’s perceived issues, and there’s the glaring issue that Utah ranks 20th in the league in clutch win percentage (.438), which has cost the Jazz several games down the stretch and part of the reason why the Mavericks have home-court advantage over them.

Taking an even wider view of Utah’s situation, the last two postseason appearances have ended in rather disappointing fashion. There was the collapse in 2020, when the Jazz held a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets only to lose the next three games and be eliminated. Then there was last season, where Utah entered the playoffs with the best record in the league only to lose in six games in the second round to a Clippers team that was without Kawhi Leonard for the last two games of the series. With rumors swirling about the possibility of Snyder looking at other coaching gigs, and trade rumors centered around Gobert, it’s safe to say that this is a crucial postseason for the Jazz.

Utah has the necessary pieces to make a run, as Mitchell is having another impressive season that hasn’t been acknowledged as much as it probably should. Gobert is again a legitimate contender to win Defensive Player of the Year, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley have provided enough consistent production on offense to make the Jazz a difficult team to beat. Utah also owns the league’s top-ranked offense, so it can build a lead in a hurry against weaker defenses. But the Jazz are vulnerable to blowing leads, and although Doncic may not be available for the duration of this series, they can’t afford to get comfortable against a Mavericks team that can flat-out defend and force their opponent into careless mistakes. 

There’s a pathway for the Jazz to win this series, but we’ve seen before that they can get in their own way and crumble under pressure. We’ll have to see if they can put all the ups and downs from the regular season behind them and take advantage of a Dallas team that could be without its best player.   

3. Adjustments, lineups and strategy

Because of the uncertainty surrounding Doncic’s status, this series is going to become a chess game for both sides. If Doncic is out for Game 1 and beyond, Kidd is going to have to alter his strategy against the Jazz a bit. Doncic runs a lot of pick-and-roll sets with springy forward Dwight Powell, and it’s been incredibly successful for the Mavericks this season. But that could be diminished if Doncic is ruled out. 

There’s also the size advantage that the Jazz present against the Mavericks. Utah may opt to get Gobert involved a lot more on offense as Dallas doesn’t really have anyone who can match up well with him from a size perspective. Maxi Kleber and Powell will do their best, but it may force Kidd to get creative if Gobert goes on a scoring spree. 

Speaking of Gobert, one common theme we’ve seen throughout the last two postseasons is teams taking advantage of Utah’s drop coverage with the Frenchman. In matchups against the Jazz during the regular season, Doncic actively tried to hunt Gobert out of switches to varied results. We’ll likely see Dallas try to do the same thing with Gobert if Doncic is healthy, and if the Mavs are successful in neutralizing Gobert’s rim protection by pulling him away from the net and force him to defend on the perimeter, it’s going to call for adjustments on Utah’s side as well.  

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