The Western Conference’s fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks and fifth-seeded Utah Jazz meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Dallas won the last playoff meeting between the two teams in 2001.
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How they got here
Dallas Mavericks (52-30)
The Mavericks go as Luka Doncic goes, and he entered the season out of shape. He tweaked his ankle and contracted COVID-19 in December, and they were two games below .500 as the halfway point approached.
We had questions about how badly Doncic wanted to be a pantheon-level player, what kind of coach Jason Kidd would be the third time around, whether or not Kristaps Porzingis was a worthy co-star and what their ceiling could be defensively. The Mavericks answered all of them in a dominant second half of the season.
Doncic posted a triple-double in a 27-point win against the surging Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 14, and from that point forward, he played his way back into the MVP conversation. He averaged a 31-10-9 on 47/38/76 shooting splits after the midway point, playing all but two games, and Dallas finished on a 30-11 tear.
The surge was aided by a controversial deadline trade that sent Porzingis to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Not having to feed Porzingis touches did wonders, and Dinwiddie’s secondary playmaking has been an added bonus. Dallas improved from 21st in defensive rating under longtime coach Rick Carlisle last season to seventh under Kidd this year. When Doncic is the centerpiece of your offense, that is the only recipe you need to finish with a top-three net rating in the West.
Only one problem: Doncic strained his left calf playing the second half of a meaningless regular season finale. The Mavericks have yet to provide a timetable for his return, leaving his status for Game 1 in doubt.
Utah Jazz (49-33)
The Jazz mostly operated outside the NBA consciousness, because they won 63% of their games the past five seasons and were second-round playoff fodder at best. That they plodded to 49 wins is unsurprising.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert did make headlines in January, when he implored his teammates to “buy in” defensively and “take every game personally,” specifically citing Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker as an example of what it takes to elevate from playoff afterthought to serious contender. He was not wrong, but you can imagine how that played with Donovan Mitchell in a locker room that has been fraying for years.
Regardless, Mitchell submitted another All-NBA-caliber season, and Gobert is again in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Mike Conley is still a steady hand, and Bojan Bogdanovic is still an underrated scorer. Jordan Clarkson fell back to earth from last year’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign, and fellow standout reserve Joe Ingles tore his left ACL midway through a season in decline, earning himself a trade.
The end result was still the league’s most efficient offense, a top-10 defense and the West’s second-best net rating, all of which flew under the radar. This season is about winning when it counts, and now it does.
Head to head
The Mavericks and Jazz split their regular season series, 2-2.
Throw out their Christmas meeting, since COVID-ravaged Dallas had nine player on the shelf, including Doncic, and still managed to stay competitive in a 120-116 loss. Gobert rested for the final regular season showdown on March 27, so we can take that lopsided Mavericks victory with a grain of salt, too. The two games in between came down to who performed better, Mitchell or Doncic, and they split the difference.
The Mavericks will try to counter Gobert with Maxi Kleber as a small-ball center, surrounded by Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock. They can go super small with Dinwiddie in place of Bullock — a lineup that has outscored opponents by 21 points in 38 minutes together. Dwight Powell is also available to provide size in a number of similar lineup combinations that have yielded positive results.
The Jazz close games with Mitchell, Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale — a lineup that has outscored opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions over 666 minutes this season. If Clarkson has the hot shooting hand, Utah coach Quin Snyder could ride with him, too, but he adds a level of unpredictability.
Matchup to watch
The most important matchup is Doncic against his calf. Muscle injuries can linger, and even if Doncic is available at the start of the series — or close to it — the Mavericks need him to be close to full strength. Heliocentric offenses are hard enough to win with in the playoffs. No need to add another layer of difficulty.
Besides, O’Neale is a capable defender. The Mavericks scored just 91.3 points per 100 possessions in the 16 minutes O’Neale was matched up opposite Doncic this season. The Dallas standout’s 8-for-24 shooting performance in a 114-109 loss to Utah on Feb. 25 was among his worst outings of the season for a reason.
At Doncic’s best, though, it does not matter who is defending him. He can make O’Neale and Gobert look silly from the perimeter to the rim, and Utah has easier alternatives to pick on if he wants to get creative.
Same goes for Mitchell. He has four 40-point playoff games over the past two seasons, including a pair of 50-point nights. Bullock has drawn the bulk of Dallas’ work opposite Mitchell, even though Finney-Smith has been statistically more effective against him. Mitchell’s greatest opponent may be internal, because the Jazz feel combustible, and the first round will tell us how soon they want an offseason of change to begin.
Dallas Mavericks (+240)
Utah Jazz (-300)
Jazz in seven. (Mavericks in six if Doncic is healthy.)
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