The Three Biggest Questions In The Mavericks-Jazz First Round Series

The 2022 NBA Playoffs open on Saturday afternoon, and the first matchup of the slate pits the No. 4 seed Dallas Mavericks against the No. 5 seed Utah Jazz in front of a national audience. After a slow start, Dallas enjoyed an excellent season, winning 52 games to earn homecourt advantage in the first round, and the team’s defensive improvement was notable and impressive. Utah regressed from its lofty regular season heights in 2020-21, winning 49 games after a 52-20 mark a year ago, but the Jazz remain dangerous and actually enter as the betting favorite in the series.

Luka Doncic’s calf issue, as noted below, is perhaps the top story in advance of the series, but the Mavericks will be aiming to advance beyond the first round for the first time since they won the NBA title in 2011. The Jazz are also looking to make a postseason dent for the first time in quite a while, as Utah has come up short of the conference finals in every season since 2007.

Storylines abound in advance of what should be a highly entertaining and competitive series, and there are many questions to answer in determining what will transpire. In this space, we’ll tackle three prominent questions, starting with the health status of the best player on the floor.

When will Luka Doncic be able to play and how effective can he be?

It goes without saying, but the Mavericks would not be a top-four seed in the West without Doncic. As such, the No. 1 question (by a wide margin) is what he might look like and when he’ll return from the calf injury he suffered during the last weekend of the regular season. All signs point to a Game 1 absence but, with a soft-tissue injury, there is inherent uncertainty.

Though Doncic and the Mavericks are 0-2 in playoff series during his tenure, it isn’t as if Doncic was the issue. He is averaging 33.5 points, 9.5 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game in 13 postseason contests, and those numbers came in an especially difficult matchup against the switch-heavy Clippers. Utah doesn’t pose those same issues defensively (more on this later), but if Doncic can’t play for a few games, Dallas might fall into a hole that would be impossible to overcome.

If you are looking for a point of optimism from the Mavs’ perspective, though, Dallas maintains a positive net rating with Doncic off the court this season, mucking it up with a 104.9 defensive rating. That might not work in the long term against a talented Jazz team but, at home for the first two games, it is possible to see Dallas pull off a split without Doncic, giving him more rest in the process.

Can the Jazz effectively score against a stingy defense?

The Jazz led the entire NBA in offensive rating in 2021-22, scoring more than 1.16 points per possession. At times, Utah was two or three full points ahead of the field in efficiency, and it seems ludicrous to question whether the Jazz have enough juice in this series. However, Dallas was No. 4 in the NBA in defensive efficiency from Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season, and Utah’s “beautiful game” approach doesn’t always translate well to the postseason.

On one hand, Utah should be able to get Dallas in rotation, creating the open threes that they thrive on to boost overall efficiency. Donovan Mitchell is a legitimate star, and Mike Conley is an incredibly capable secondary creator. Rudy Gobert remains an underrated offensive player when accounting for his gravity as a roll man, finishing prowess, and screening ability, and Utah has enough firepower on the wings to make things interesting.

On the other, Dallas can deploy lineups without glaring weak points if they so choose, and the Mavericks could flummox Utah if they are able to switch with regularity. On paper, the Mavericks don’t have uber-elite defensive talent, but they are well-schooled on that end, and the uptick in defensive effectiveness wasn’t a fluke. Utah still has the advantage when it comes to its offense against the Mavs’ defense, but we’ve also seen what it looks like when the Jazz bog down in big moments.

Is this any different for Utah?

Doncic’s injury has to be in the top spot, simply because he’s a top-10 player in the world and his presence might directly swing the series. If not for that, though, the overarching question would be whether the Jazz can turn the narrative.

Utah hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent playoff appearances, including a defensive catastrophe last season. Rudy Gobert is often blamed for those mishaps and, while he isn’t quite as dominant when forced to defend on the perimeter, Utah’s perimeter resistance completely collapsed in the postseason a year ago. This year, the Jazz have better health at the guard spots, but Joe Ingles isn’t walking through that door and, aside from Royce O’Neale, the defensive talent is not tremendous.

If Doncic is limited or out, the Jazz should win this series, even without homecourt advantage (sportsbooks place them as a healthy -320 favorite coming in). That isn’t a jab at the Mavericks, but rather an acknowledgement of just how important Doncic is. If things get tight and Doncic is Doncic, though, Utah will have the opportunity to chip away at the skepticism that is baked in at this point, and it will be interesting to see how the Jazz respond. If things go poorly, a major overhaul could be in the offing this summer.