How the Mavericks Have Survived Without Luka Doncic

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Dallas coach Jason Kidd in a recent game.
(Wikimedia Commons/Keith Allison)
Colton Pool @CPoolReporter Apr 21, 2022, 1:31 PM

Ahead of the second game of their first-round playoff series, before trying to dig out of a 1-0 deficit they found themselves in, head coach Jason Kidd asked the Dallas Mavericks if they believed.

The question may as well have been all-encompassing. 

Could they bounce back from losing to the Jazz, who have NBA Finals odds of +3500, in Game 1 of the first-round series? Are they capable of winning without All-Star point guard Luka Dončić?

The answer, regardless, was yes. And they proved it.

Jalen Brunson went off for 41 points. Maxi Kleber made 8 of 11 3-pointers for another 25 points. And the Mavericks confidently responded with a 110-104 triumph over the Jazz.

What is Dallas without its star? If Monday’s game is any indicator, it’s still a capable team, albeit with an unsustainable formula.

“We know we’re buying time for Luka to come back,” Mavericks guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. “It’s not rocket science. We want to have him back as quickly and safely and healthy as possible, but we’re also focused on winning this series regardless.”

Dallas Mavericks Playoff Game

The Mavericks, the No. 4-seeded team out of the Western Conference, play at Utah, the No. 5 squad, at 9 p.m. ET Thursday in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series.

The Jazz, who are the NBA point spread favorite by 6.5 points, were 15 games behind the West lead at 49-33. They were 4-6 before the playoffs.

The Mavericks were 52-30 in the regular season. They were 12 games behind the conference-leading Suns. They entered the postseason on a four-game winning streak and had a 8-2 mark in their last 10 games.

But that was with Dončić, who has NBA Finals MVP odds of +4000.

He was fourth in the league during the regular season in player impact estimate and was second in usage rate behind only MVP candidate Joel Embiid. 

Dončić is recovering from a strained left calf. Thus, the Mavericks have had to play without him to begin the playoffs.

“He’s a competitor,” Brunson said. “I know he is dying to get out there soon, but he’s got to take his time and I know he’s going to do everything in his power to not let his team down.”

Jalen Brunson Steps Up

Brunson’s involvement in Dallas’ offense has picked up significantly in these past two games. And he’s picked up his production in kind.

Brunson averaged 16.3 points in 31.9 minutes per game during the regular season. Averaging 41.5 minutes in two postseason games, he’s totaled 32.5 points.

That was after a career-high 41 in the Mavericks win. The fourth-year guard and former second-round pick out of Villanova made 15 of 25 shots and 6 of 10 3-pointers. 

He added a team-high eight rebounds, five assists and two steals. He’s among the top 10 in player impact estimate for the playoffs.

That’s the exact type of aggressiveness Kidd wants to see.

“He didn’t wait,” the coach said of Brunson. “He took up the space and was aggressive from the jump. We talked about it earlier, again, don’t wait. Get to your spot and do what you do best and I thought he ran the team extremely well. He found spots to score but then he made plays.”

Brunson insisted his mentality remains the same – whether he’s making all of his shots or none of them or whether Dončić is out and he’s the focal point of the offense or not.

If the moment presents itself, if the defense gives him enough space, take the shot.

“I’m already trying to forget about it,” Brunson said of his latest performance. “This is a great win for us, something we can build off of. But we have a lot of room for improvement, things we can clean up and things we can get better. And we’ve just got to stay the course.”

Maxi Kleber Makes an Impact

Kleber also made his presence known in the Dallas win.

Off the bench, the power forward took nothing but 3-pointers. And he was 8 for 11, scoring 25 points in 32 minutes.

“He was on fire,” Brunson said before looking at a stat sheet. “He was 8 for 11? Jesus. 25? Jesus. That’s big time for him. I’m happy for him.”

“He’s just a pro,” Kidd added. “He never complains, and the beauty is his teammates trust him. He has to shoot them because he can shoot them, and today he made them and we’re going to need him to hit them no matter if he makes or misses them.”

Kleber fulfills a particularly important role against the Jazz. 

Utah depends on the defense of center Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But with Kleber’s shooting, the Mavericks can space out the floor and open up opportunities in the lane.

But even when he’s at his best, Kleber said he’s not persistent about having the ball in his hands. He realizes what his role does for others.

“But I knew whenever I catch the ball and there’s space,” Kleber said, “I’m going to let it fly again because it felt like I had a hot hand and just continued shooting.”

Mavericks Supporting Cast Elevates Its Performance

With those contributions from Brunson and Kleber, Dinwiddie noted the Mavericks played precisely how they wanted to.

As a team, the Mavericks made 22 of 47 3-pointers (47%). That’s a Dallas playoff record for made shots from deep. Kidd said, “it’s just mathematics” that Dallas would have an advantage by taking more 3s than Utah.

“We had great ball movement in the second half,” Brunson said. “I mean we’re out there just playing together, and everything was kind of fluid. And obviously the ball was going in for me, but I wouldn’t be able to do that without my teammates. 

“They gave me a lot of confidence, and it’s a credit to them and the coaching staff. But as a team, we just kept fighting and stuck together. Whenever they made runs, we just stayed calm and we just kept our focus.”

The Mavericks also committed only three turnovers, another playoff benchmark. They forced the Jazz into 10. Utah shot 38 of 82 (46%) from the field and 11 of 29 (38%) from beyond the arc.

Dinwiddie felt optimistic following Game 1 because of how the Mavericks defended. It carried over to their latest outing.

“It was just an overall fight,” Kleber said. “The whole team came together. Everybody believed, and one thing that coach always talks about, when one guy is down like Luka, the next guy has to step up and I think that’s what we did. We believed in ourselves, even after Game 1. We knew we were right there. With our defense, we gave ourselves a chance.”

Mavericks Showing Weaknesses Without Luka Dončić

Dallas was far from perfect in its playoff game, though.

The Jazz won the rebounding battle 50-31. That included Utah’s 11 offensive boards to Dallas’ two.

“They can win the rebounding war,” Kidd said, “but it’s about winning the game. And that’s what we did.”

The Mavericks also aren’t a deep team, even with Dončić. 

Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Dinwiddie and Brunson each played at least 40 minutes. Of the nine Mavericks that stepped on the floor, Kleber was the only other one who played more than 16 minutes.

If Dončić comes back, which is a possibility for Game 3, that time could be more dispersed. Until then, the Mavericks proved they can get by.

That might not be sustainable. And yet it may not need to be.

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About the Author

Colton Pool

Read More @CPoolReporter

Colton Pool is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM living in Bozeman, Montana, focusing on the NFL and NBA. Previously, he covered Montana State football at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and worked at newspapers in his home state of North Dakota. He graduated from North Dakota State in 2015.

Colton Pool is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM living in Bozeman, Montana, focusing on the NFL and NBA. Previously, he covered Montana State football at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and worked at newspapers in his home state of North Dakota. He graduated from North Dakota State in 2015.