In what turned out to be a historical performance, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Utah Jazz 110-104 in Game Two on Monday night.
The win ties the best-of-seven series at one game apiece and marks the first playoff win at the American Airlines Center for Dallas since April 26, 2015, when they beat Houston 121-109 to win Game Four of their five-game first-round series loss.
The Mavericks did it without their injured superstar Luka Doncic and by erasing a double-digit deficit for an NBA-leading 18th time this season.
Jalen Brunson had, without a doubt, the best game of his career. Brunson scored a career-high 41 points, making 15-of-25 total shot attempts and committing no turnovers. He also added eight rebounds and five assists.
The other 40-point scorers were Doncic, Dirk Nowitzki, Rolando Blackman and Nick Van Exel. Nowitzki completed the feat an impressive seven times.
Brunson, who had 24 points when the Mavericks lost 99-93 in Game One, made his first five shots of Game Two, including three three-pointers in the first six minutes. He finished the first quarter with 15 points. Still, Dallas was trailing 55-48 at halftime, and the deficit grew to 10 points (60-50) less than 2 minutes into the third quarter.
Utah dominated the boards again with a 50-31 rebounding advantage, and their All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell was consistent the entire game en route to 34 points. It seemed as though the Mavericks were on a path to falling 2-0 in the series, especially without Doncic.
However, Brunson and Maxi Kleber delivered down the stretch.
Brunson was methodical, with a versatile mix of aggressive drives and long-range shot attempts. He attempted a season-high 10 three-pointers, making six, as he passed his season-high of 31 points and then his career-high of 34 points, which he accomplished in his rookie year.
In the first two games of the series, Brunson has scored 65 points, surpassing the 56 total points he had over the entire first-round playoff series loss to the Clippers last season.
“I’m just playing how the defense is giving me, just seeing how they’re defending certain things. Just stepping into certain shots,” Brunson said. “Yeah, the 5-of-5 start is great, but I had the same mentality when I was 0 for 5 last game, or whatever. … You can’t fluctuate … when [Doncic] is in or out. Because you need guys to make plays.”
Kleber was the second-leading scorer with 25 points and made 8-of-11 three-pointers. Kleber had made only 19% of his three-point attempts since the All-Star break, but he gave the Mavericks the lead for good with a three-pointer at 4:21 left, then he added another three on the next possession. His threes were part of a 24-11 run over the last 7:55 for Dallas.
“I started this morning, I was talking to [Dorian Finney-Smith], and I told him, ‘Doe, I’m going to let 10 threes fly tonight.’ And he said, ‘That’s my dog.’ And that kind of set the tone for the day,” Kleber said. “The mindset is we know they’re going to leave certain guys open to shoot. We’ve just got to let it fly.”
Kleber had not made more than two three-pointers in a game since before the mid-February All-Star break. He came through in the clutch as he hit 3-of-4 three-point attempts in the third and fourth quarters.
With their second-half surge, the Mavericks avoided falling into an almost hopeless 2-0 hole in the series. Just 31 times in 435 NBA playoff best-of-seven series has a team overcome a 2-0 deficit to advance to the next round.
The win in Game Two effectively turns the series into a best-of-five and ensures a Game Five in Dallas. Games Three and Four will be in Utah’s Vivint Arena, where the Mavericks have lost 11 consecutive times dating back to April 2016.
“We did what we had to do, which was win tonight. But we were only focused on tonight,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “We understand what’s in front of us, what’s coming. It’s going to be a hostile environment.”
Now, the Mavericks hope their superstar Doncic, undoubtedly the best player on either team when healthy, can return for either Thursday’s Game Three or Saturday’s Game Four. They will need all the reinforcements possible to help their chances in Utah.
Doncic is still out because of a strained left calf he suffered in the regular-season finale, 8 days before Monday’s Game Two. Kidd continues to say he is making progress in his healing.
“He’s definitely going in the right direction,” Kidd said of Doncic. “He’s doing more each day. … He’s doing everything he can do up to this point, and hopefully he can play sooner.”
If Doncic is not playing, Dallas will continue to need Herculean efforts from Brunson, who is setting himself up for a nice payday this offseason. Currently, in his rookie deal’s final year, Brunson will be a free agent after the season. The former NCAA champion at Villanova was drafted in 2018, the same year as Doncic.
“He’s going to make a lot of money. I don’t know if he needs an agent, but I’ll put my name in the hat,” Kidd said about Brunson. “It’s not just what he did tonight. It’s not what he’s going to do going forward. He’s already done the work. He’s showing that he deserves to be paid. He does his job at a very high level, and he’s a winner.”