Utah enters the 2022 NBA Playoffs as just a fifth seed after a 49-33 season. However, one could argue no team is under more pressure to win than the Jazz. On paper, it doesn't make sense a lot of sense. Head coach Quinn Snyder has led the Jazz to six straight playoff appearances. Last year they finished the season with the NBA's best record. This year, they have the league's best offensive rating. The team features two All-Stars in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell who are both locked up to long-term deals. Again, on paper, it seems like the future is bright in Utah.
In reality however, without a strong playoff showing, this team could be headed to a messy off-season. Rumors are swirling that this could be Snyder’s last season coaching the Jazz. Some reports suggest both sides might agree to part ways. Snyder was 3rd in the Coach of the Year voting last year and is a four-time Coach of the Month recipient, as recently as February this year. Despite his regular season success he has yet to lead the Jazz out of the second round. He’s one of the early favorites to the be the next Laker’s coach.
Additionally, there has been a lot of talk about the two stars not getting along and both are heating up the trade rumor columns. Donovan Mitchell just finished his best season as a pro, was selected to his third consecutive All-Star game. The past three seasons he has averaged 24, 26.4 and 25.9 points per game. He’s been known to elevate his play come playoff time where his scoring average jumped to 36.3 and 32.3 the past two post-seasons. However, he has been linked to the Knicks in about every rumor column as he’s a New York native.
Mitchell’s counterpart, Rudy Gobert, also just went to his third consecutive All-Star game after posting a league leading, and career high, 14.7 rebounds per game. He is likely to be a finalist to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year, a feat only met by Hall of Famer’s Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo. Gobert, a native of France, doesn’t have a “home team” rumored destination. Ironically, multiple executives around the league believe if were to become available on the trade market, Dallas of all places would be a likely suitor.
The Maverick's and Luka Doncic, are facing a different kind of pressure. Similar to the Utah stars, there were reports of Luka and Kristaps Porziņģis not getting along. Dallas however traded the latter at the deadline in a move that raised a lot of eyebrows at the time. Some "experts" didn't think they got enough and despite his injury history, Porziņģis was too special of a talent to giveaway.
In return, the Maverick’s acquired Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans from the Washington Wizards. From a statistical perspective, Dinwiddie’s 23 games with Dallas has been the best stint of his career. He’s shooting almost 50/40 with an offensive rating far beyond his previous career highs. On multiple occasions he has come up big for the Maverick’s, off the bench and sometimes in the starting lineup.
Luka himself hasn’t won a playoff series and despite how well he has played, and the quality of opponents he has faced, he knows he needs to win this series. If they lose, especially as the higher seed with home court, the talking heads will debate all summer if he can ever do so. No matter what the excuse…
The real story of the week, and maybe I’ve buried the lead here, is the health of the Maverick’s superstar. On Monday Luka was diagnosed with a calf strain and no timetable for return. According to my very quick google search, depending on severity, recovery time can range from a few days to a month, and in rare cases may require surgery. Personally, I would be shocked if Luka were to miss games but even if he’s ready for Game One, the injury could linger.
Since Luka was drafted the Mavericks are 5-9 against the Jazz. Although two of those wins were played in March, both were in Dallas and one was with Rudy Gobert sitting out. In fact, Luka has never won a single game in Utah. You read that correct. The only road win the Maverick’s have in his career was in the bubble and Luka didn’t even play in that game anyways.
When it comes to the actual match-up, these teams are opposites. As mentioned earlier, the Jazz were first in the NBA this year in offensive rating, while the Mavericks are strong at the other end, ranking 6th in defensive rating. The Jazz have struggled down the stretch but the Mavericks are trending up. Dallas has won 20 of their last 27 games and Utah has lost seven of their last 11, including multiple blown leads. On January 30th, the Jazz lost a rotational piece in Joe Ingles for the season. Two weeks later, Dallas added one in Dinwiddie.
The season series was split 2-2, with all wins by the home teams. In the game that Luka was out, the Maverick’s lost. In the game that Gobert was out, the Jazz lost.
Utah relies on the three-point shot more than almost any team in basketball. Their 40+ attempts per game ranked second only behind the Minnesota Timberwolves. To counter that, Dallas boasts the 5th ranked 3pt defense in the league with opponents connecting on 34.0% of attempts, a mere 0.2 from being the best in the entire NBA.
While Snyder might be on the hot seat for the Jazz, Dallas head coach Jason Kidd looks to be with the club for years to come. Before winning an NBA Championship with the Lakers in 2020, Kidd was the coach for playoff teams in both Brooklyn and Milwaukee. While with the Nets, Kidd became the 19th rookie head coach to lead his team to a Game 7 on the road, and became the first one to win it.
Luka lead the NBA in usage rate for the second consecutive season. In the past two playoffs, raised even higher. While historically that hasn't bode well for title contention, my bigger concern is how that affects his injured calf. In the event that Luka does miss time or clearly isn't near 100%, someone else will have to step up.
The aforementioned Dinwiddie is a strong candidate to shoulder a larger load. Besides his efficiency since putting on a Dallas uniform, and his game winners, it wasn’t long ago he was a 20+ per game scorer in this league.
The other option, will likely be Jalen Brunson. The fourth-year pro set a career high in scoring at 16.3 and has shown a variety of ways to get the ball in the basket. In three of his four highest scoring outputs of the season, 28, 28, 27, Luka was out of the lineup. Two of those games were wins. The loss, ironically, was to the Utah Jazz.
High pressure moments are where great players and coaches shine. Some have helped formed the narrative surrounding the legends of this game. It will be interesting to see who will overcome but also to see the impact to the teams whose players fail to rise to the occasion. The ramifications of a loss, while possibly larger for the Jazz, could shape both teams for years to come. This isn't the only series with a lot on the line.
As far as my prediction though, it’s tough. I’ve heard a lot of people picking Dallas as a dark horse pick to make the Western Conference Finals. Luka is playing incredible as of late, Jason Kidd has the best team (record-wise) in his coaching history and they have home court. But that was before the injury. I’m sure as we grow closer to tip-off we will all have a better idea. Unfortunately for me, hey, the boss has a deadline.
I do think the Jazz situation, as uncertain as their future may be, could go either way. If Utah blows a late 4th quarter lead in Game 1, they might implode and lose in five, or even a sweep. But with so much on the line, and their history of success against Luka, maybe they block all the noise out and rise to the occasion? Possible.
I just find it hard to believe Luka isn’t out there for Game 1 and I expect him to play well. Over my years as an NBA fan, you see these rights of passage all the time. The most obvious one being Michael Jordan and the teams he had to get through over the years in his ascension. Now, I’m not suggesting that this rendition of the Utah Jazz are some NBA power but they have had Luka’s number. Look at his career trajectory: Rookie season, no playoffs. Second season, playoffs, lost in six. Third season, playoffs, lost in seven. (And both of those playoff losses were against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) Wouldn’t it just be fitting, if he were to break through to the second round this year? Or (calf permitting) beyond?
EDIT: I originally had the Mavericks in seven games. That was prior to the announcement that Luka is 100% out for Game 1. Reports suggest he might miss Game 2. I spoke to an unnamed source close to the team that thinks there is a chance that Luka doesn’t play this series at all. There is a fear that playing could make the injury worse or potential lead to a separate injury. We have seen athletes before have calf issues that then lead to an ACL or Achilles situation. While I would be surprised if Luka doesn’t give it a go at some point, look at from the perspective of ownership or the GM. What if Luka misses both of the first two games, and the series is 1-1, or even worse, 2-0 for the Jazz? Do you put your hobbled star out there to play in Utah, when they already have control of homecourt?
What an unfortunate turn of events. This was already a tough matchup for Dallas but with Luka at the least missing the first game, I think it swings Utah’s way.
Utah in six.
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