With seven minutes left in the Mavericks’ 102-77 public shaming of the Utah Jazz on Monday, a scuffle broke out under the Dallas basket. Utah big man/talentless space-occupier Hassan Whiteside took league superstar Luka Dončić hard to the floor on an attempted shot block. Mavs forward Dorian Finney-Smith immediately came to defend Luka’s honor, getting in Whiteside’s face and giving a little shove before coaches from both teams rushed to the court to try and separate the scrum. Fellow Mavs forward Reggie Bullock got a shove in as well before the players were pulled apart and was ultimately ejected along with Whiteside for the little battle.
There is something about this moment, with its historically uncharacteristic doggedness, that seems to highlight what has become a new identity for this year’s Mavericks team. Perhaps more than any other quality, they’re showing they are tough. Damn tough. Whether it’s a newfound physicality, their relentless commitment to defense, or the ice-cold swagger that seems to be injecting itself into their on-court demeanor, this season’s Mavs have a general unfuckwithableness I don’t think I’ve ever seen from them. This toughness has carried them to a 3-2 series lead over the Jazz, and they seem to be wielding a Stormbreaker-sized hammer ready to drive the nail into Utah’s proverbial coffin on Thursday night.
It could be argued the series should already be over if not for some confounding final seconds in Game 4. How you let almost five seconds roll off before bringing the ball across half court, leaving only seven to set up the final shot while Luka is being double-teamed, is an egregious error on par with, I don’t know, maybe the Cowboys calling a QB draw up the middle with less than 11 seconds left in an important game. *cough, cough*
Not only do the Jazz already seem lifeless, practically rolling over and baring their bellies to the Mavs’ sharp teeth, but the team is now potentially without its own superstar. Donovan Mitchell suffered a hamstring injury Monday by bewilderingly still being in the game while down by more than 20 late in the fourth quarter. I don’t just see Utah having the fight to claw their way back into this series, and the Mavs are demonstrating they have no intention of taking their Nike 1’s off Utah’s throat.
Perhaps no player embodies the Mavs’ new grittiness more than point guard Jalen Brunson. He has an absolute fearlessness when it comes to driving into the lane and has proven he can take a shot (even cheap ones) as he routinely does from opposing players. Despite his short stature by NBA standards, he’s solid and sturdy and consistently uses his size and shiftiness to back off defenders nearly a foot taller than he is to take the ball to the rim. He more than helped fill the void early in the series left by the absence of Dončić while the latter was nursing a calf injury. Brunson was the undisputed leader of the team, averaging 31 points over the first three games without No. 77. Now with Luka back, he’s not simply fading back into a supporting role. As he’s done all season long, Brunson is proving he can run a point nearly as effectively as the Slovenian Superstar he shares the backcourt with. His play this year will no doubt grant the former NCAA National Player of the Year award winner a nice fat sack of cash in the offseason, likely worth north of $100M. We can only hope it’s here with Dallas.
You have to give the credit to Jason Kidd. With largely the same personnel (minus of course an exorbitantly expensive and particularly untough Unicorn), the head coach has remade this squad into a physical, defensively motivated gang of outright dogs! Kidd didn’t bring an impressive coaching resume with him to Dallas, but so far, he is building one here now. This team fights, and they fight as a team.
Throughout the Rick Carlisle era, the Mavs were kind of known as a “soft” team. This was mostly due to the supposed softness unfairly ascribed to Dirk Nowitzki and the team’s general disinterest in defensive basketball. Suffering from the stereotype of European players’ supposed lack of toughness coupled with being basically the world’s nicest guy, Dirk had to prove his grit in other ways. Whether by fighting through injury, illness, or opposing players’ classless taunting, No. 41 carried Dallas to its only NBA championship. All while beaming his signature million-dollar smile. With Brunson setting the physical tone and Luka back healthy, I’m starting to believe this year’s team could just possibly do the same, but instead of smiling, they’ll be doing it with gnashed teeth and riled fur.