Jalen Brunson turned heads with his 41-point performance in Game 2 of the Dallas Mavericks’ first round series versus the Utah Jazz. They won and tied the count at one win apiece despite the absence of their injured leading scorer Luka Doncic.
Brunson wasted no time in Game 3 and picked up where he left off from the opening tip in front of a notoriously hostile Jazz home crowd at the Vivint Arena. The 25-year-old guard already had 15 points midway through the second quarter and was well on his way to another memorable evening.
The Mavericks led by 16, 50-34, as Utah was helpless in the face of their offensive onslaught. Mike Conley managed to hit a three-pointer from near the top of the key to momentarily shift some momentum in the Jazz’s favor, but his teammate Royce O’Neale decided to take matters into his own hands–or, more appropriately, his left elbow.
O’Neale took a cheap shot at Brunson’s lower back as Conley’s shot soared through the hoop and it sent Dallas’ hobbled breakout star straight to the locker room.
Instead of the Mavericks losing their composure following the incident, midseason acquisition Spencer Dinwiddie stepped in and helped orchestrate a three-point barrage to close the opening half. Reggie Bullock and Davis Bertans hit two apiece while Dinwiddie had one of his own as they extended their lead to 17, 68-51, by halftime.
Brunson, to the relief of the Dallas faithful, returned to the court at the beginning of the second half and continued to slice through Utah’s defense. He made his first basket of the third quarter and simultaneously drew a foul on O’Neale in what was a poetic semblance of revenge.
However, the Jazz were not ready to back down and made one last charge. They pulled within a point, 103-102, halfway through the fourth quarter after a step-back three-pointer by Conley. They were in prime position to take over the game and had their raucous crowd behind them, yet that was as close as they would get for the remainder of the evening.
Dinwiddie silenced the building with back-to-back isolation lay-ups then Brunson scored six straight points to bring their lead back up to nine, 113-104. It was smooth sailing for them from that point on as they cruised to a 126-118 victory and an impressive 2-1 lead in the series.
Brunson finished with 31 points on 12-of-22 shooting and a perfect seven-of-seven from the free throw line in 35 minutes. He also had five rebounds and only committed one turnover. The former second round pick is now averaging 32 points per game in their three postseason games and has arguably been the biggest revelation of these playoffs so far.
Dinwiddie was solid as well, tallying 20 points, five rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two turnovers. While the six-of-21 field goal shooting leaves much to be desired, his calming presence, especially when Brunson was off the floor, was crucial for the Mavericks. His two timely baskets in the fourth quarter when Utah was knocking on their door were extremely valuable as well.
Dallas quickly went from the favorite to underdog when news of Doncic’s injury broke, but they have managed to build this lead without him. Although the Jazz’s highly publicized dysfunction and the tension arising from their potential offseason revamp have been a factor, the brilliance of Brunson, Dinwiddie, and the rest of their supporting cast in this opening round should not be overlooked. A total of seven Mavericks scored at least 12 points in their Game 3 win and it has truly been a collective effort.
Brunson and Dinwiddie have seamlessly slid into Doncic’s ball-dominant role in their offense and have grown more comfortable by the game. Meanwhile, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Reggie Bullock have played their roles to a tee. This trio has consistently played hard-nosed defense and they have greatly contributed to Dallas’ floor-spacing with their three-point shooting.
Kleber in particular has shined the brightest and is on the strongest stretch of his three-year career. The German forward has made 14 three-pointers already in this three-game series and has made Utah pay for leaving him open.
The greatest blessing of this 2-1 Mavericks lead is that it gives Doncic the luxury of being patient with his recovery from a calf strain. There is no need to rush him back given how they have played, though there have been indications that he may be ready to suit up by Game 4.
Whether or not he returns, Dallas looks poised to take this series and advance to the second round. The confidence that the team has built over this stretch will pay even more dividends when their three-time NBA All-Star returns and it is growing more believable by the day that this group can make a deep playoff run when complete.
This motley crew has proven that they are more than just Doncic’s sidekicks and capable of winning on their own–something that the Jazz have had to learn the hard way.