Jalen Brunson scores 31, Mavericks hold off Jazz to take 2-1 series lead

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With the Utah Jazz season seemingly on the line — down by as many as 17 — and his hand forced by foul trouble to Rudy Gobert, Jazz coach Quin Snyder found something that works:

Small ball.

Playing five-out the Jazz put together their best offensive stretch of the playoffs, moving the ball on the perimeter, setting up mismatches to attack, and hitting 3-pointers. What had been a 17-point lead got all the way down to one.

But the Mavericks had Jalen Brunson.

The backup point guard bounced back from a Royce O’Neal elbow to the back and scored 31 points, going right at Donovan Mitchell much of the night (making the Jazz star work on both ends), and he settled things down and helped Dallas regain control of the game.

The Mavericks won 126-118 to take a 2-1 series lead, with Game 4 Saturday afternoon in Utah — a game Luka Doncic may well return and play in.

For much of the first half, the Jazz were stuck with the same problems that plagued them against the Clippers in the last playoffs. Dallas played long stretches of the game with Maxi Kleber or Davis Bertans at center, a five-out lineup. The Jazz have poor perimeter defenders, ones that Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie (20 points) blew right past, and while Gobert is an elite defender he can’t protect the rim and cover the arc at the same time. Kleber was 4-of-5 from 3, while Bertans was 4-of-7.

On the other end of the floor, Dallas did a good job chasing the Jazz off the 3-point line. The Jazz averaged 40.3 3-point attempts a game, but they took just nine in the first half (to the Mavericks 25). Mitchell shot 1-of-7 in the half.

Jazz fans booed their team off the court at halftime, with Utah down 17 and looking doomed.

A fourth foul to Rudy Gobert may have forced Snyder’s hand to go small, but it worked. The ball moved, and with Dallas’ big men pulled out to the perimeter it opened up driving lanes for Mitchell and others. Mitchel finished the game with 31 points. Utah also got unreasonably hot, shooting 17-of-17 on two-pointers and 15-of-15 from the free-throw line.

Utah got the lead down to one, but with Gobert back in the game, the Jazz again fell into bad offensive habits for a few possessions. Dallas found its footing, Brunson made a few amazing moves, and the Mavericks held their lead and got the win.

With a 2-1 series lead, will the Mavericks bring back Doncic or let him rest his strained calf even longer? It will depend on his health, Dallas has a cushion now, but if Utah wins Game 4 on Saturday this becomes a best-of-three series and random things can happen, with or without Doncic. Dallas will want to end this as soon as possible.

From Utah’s perspective, down 2-1 to a Dallas team without their best player, this feels like a devastating loss for the Jazz. One that could be the start of this team being radically changed in the offseason. At least it looks that way from the outside.

But there are a few more games before that conversation gets serious.