Five Biggest Storylines As Jazz Prepare For Mavericks
SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks will kick off the NBA Playoffs Saturday morning.
The Jazz head to Dallas for game one in a matchup of the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference.
With the series just five days away, here are the five biggest storylines heading into game one.
Luka Doncic’s Health
The left calf of Luka Doncic is not only the top storyline heading into the Jazz and Mavericks series, it might be the top storyline heading into the playoffs overall.
The superstar guard suffered a strained calf in Sunday’s regular season finale against the San Antonio Spurs and underwent tests on the injury Monday.
The Mavericks have yet to release the findings of the tests, but the outcome of the series may hinge on the results.
Luka Dončić suffered a leg injury during the second half of the @dallasmavs’ regular season finale.
Dallas is currently projected to host the @utahjazz in the first round of the #NBAPlayoffs. #NBA #TakeNote #SASvsDAL https://t.co/BxbcMrbxvC
— KSL Sports (@kslsports) April 11, 2022
Recovery from a calf strain can range anywhere from a few days to a few months, which could make Doncic available for game one, or potentially keep him out through the postseason.
Truthfully, neither Doncic nor the Mavericks may know exactly what to expect until game time Saturday, meaning the Jazz should prepare for him to play, and be willing to adjust if he doesn’t.
Regardless, the guard’s calf is a major question mark for Dallas, and the Jazz have seen firsthand how devastating injuries can be for hopes of a deep playoff run.
Gobert Vs. Doncic
In the Jazz’s second matchup with the Mavericks this season, Rudy Gobert found himself defending Doncic to close the fourth quarter and his stellar performance led the team to victory.
After the game, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said that was the matchup Dallas was looking for, it just didn’t turn out in their favor.
In the two team’s third meetings, Doncic showed why the Mavericks hunted that matchup as he finished with 35 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, and a win.
Rudy Gobert with one of the best individual defensive performances you will see vs Luka Doncic and the Mavs. #TakeNote pic.twitter.com/MVxwHCDkFC
— Adam (@prodigyJF) February 26, 2022
If Doncic is available, the Mavericks will continue to search for that same matchup, but not with the intention of the superstar guard going off for a near 30-point triple-double.
Instead, watch for Doncic to take on Gobert simply to pull the three-time Defensive Player of the Year away from the rim, and out of help defense situations against the Mavericks’ other scorers.
Doncic picked apart the Milwaukee Bucks defense earlier this month by repeatedly drawing Giannis Antetokounmpo as his primary defender and finding his Dallas teammates for easy baskets in a six-point victory on the road.
The Jazz will work to avoid this matchup as much as possible, but if Doncic is on the court, he’ll find Gobert in the pick and roll.
Jazz Blown Fourth Quarters
No team in the NBA has been better this season through the first three quarters of the game than the Jazz.
But when the fourth quarter begins, all bets are off.
Including Friday’s incredible 17 point collapse against the Suns, the Jazz have blown six double-digit leads in the fourth quarter of games this season. That number climbs to 13 when you include double-digit leads in the third quarter.
@ ORL (4th, 10)
vs. MEM (3rd, 10)
vs. NOP (2nd, 11)
vs. SAS (3rd, 16)
vs. WAS (1st 10)
@ TOR (3rd, 15)
@ DET (3rd, 10)
@ LAL (3rd, 10)
vs. HOU (3rd, 13)
@ LAL (4th, 12)
@ SAS (4th, 15)
vs. MIL (3rd, 11)
@ DAL (2nd, 11)
@ LAC (4th, 16)
@ GSW (4th, 16)
vs. PHO (4th, 17)
— Ben Anderson (@BensHoops) April 9, 2022
While it’s impressive that the Jazz have carried so many double-digit leads late in games, it’s far more disheartening that the team can’t hold onto them.
The Jazz own the third-best net rating in the NBA this season at 6.2, but that number dips to sixth in the league at 4.0 in second halves, and ninth in the fourth quarter at 2.7.
If the Jazz want to escape the first round, they absolutely must find a way to hold onto the leads they build through the first 36 minutes of the game, no matter how large.
If they do that, the sky is the limit.
Donovan Mitchell’s Playoff Play
One untapped area of confidence the Jazz may find help in is the recent play of Donovan Mitchell over his last two playoff performances.
Though the Jazz are just 1-2 in their last three playoff series, you’d be hard-pressed to find many better postseason performers than their All-Star guard.
Over his last 17 playoff games, Mitchell is averaging 33.9 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.5 rebounds, while shooting an impressive 48 percent from the floor and 46 percent from the three-point line.
In that stretch, he has 12 games of at least 30 points, four games of at least 40 points, and two games with at least 50.
Playoff Donovan Mitchell is different. pic.twitter.com/WF4vDJ4sgf
— Hilltop Hoops (@HilltopNBA) June 9, 2021
Simply put, he’s been unguardable in the most important games of the season. However, that would be a significant departure from his season stats this year.
While Mitchell’s overall efficiency is up, he saw a dip in both points per game and three-point percentage this season, and for the first time in his career, failed to eclipse the 40 point mark during any regular-season game.
He’s also struggled mightily in fourth quarters during the Jazz string of collapses.
Despite leading the Jazz in fourth quarter field goal attempts, Mitchell has the second-lowest field goal percentage among expected rotation players at 41 percent. Those numbers will make it nearly impossible for the team to win if it holds up throughout the postseason.
With a healthier lineup heading into the playoffs this season, the Jazz don’t need Mitchell to perform the way he has in each of his last three playoff series, but he needs to be better than he was during the regular season, especially late in games.
Gay, Hernangomez, O’Neale, And House Jr.
With limited funds last offseason, the Jazz used the majority of their cap space to sign veteran Rudy Gay in hopes of bringing better size, defense, and scoring to an unreliable frontcourt.
However, Gay struggled to bring that consistency at any point throughout the Jazz season.
Making matters more difficult was the play of Juancho Hernangomez after the forward landed with the Jazz at the trade deadline.
Hernangomez replaced Gay in the team’s rotation late in the season and has been a tremendous spark off the bench averaging 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and shooting an impressive 49 percent from the floor and 42 percent from the three-point.
So nice Juancho & Hassan did it twice ✌️#TakeNote pic.twitter.com/DQlV094tsB
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) April 11, 2022
Quin Snyder has said he believes the Jazz have a higher ceiling with Gay on the floor, but it’s clear to the naked eye that Hernangomez’s rebounding, defense, hustle, and shooting give the Jazz a more consistent result.
The same can be said of Danuel House Jr. and Royce O’Neale.
O’Neale has been the Jazz’s go-to perimeter defender over the last several seasons, but lately, it’s been clear that House Jr. is the more consistent option.
House Jr. doesn’t have the familiarity with the roster that O’Neale does, but he’s a better on-ball defender, is better in transition, has been a better three-point shooter, and is a more versatile creator with the ball in his hands.
Further complicating the issue, O’Neale is playing his worst basketball of the season lately, having closed the year shooting 23 percent from both the floor and three-point line over his last 10 games.
Snyder would have to be willing to grant more important roles to players with less experience on the Jazz, but it could make the difference in what’s expected to be a close series.
Those won’t be easy calls for the veteran coach, but they may have the biggest impact of any adjustment in the opening round.
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