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Just when it looked like the Mavericks’ spring surge was in full swing with a five-game winning streak, the momentum came to a halt on Wednesday, when Dallas suffered a setback against the lowly Rockets.
Still, the baby should not be flushed with the bath water. Overall, the Mavs have looked fantastic over the past two months, in large part due to the incredible play of their growing point guard. But before you get carried away: no, we are not talking about the back-end MVP candidate Luka Dončić, who perhaps had his worst match of the year on Wednesday. This is an ode to Jalen Brunson, Dončić’s 6-foot-1 endorsement.
A few things would explain Dallas’s turnaround after a slow start, which was held for a series of COVID absences. The team’s offense looks alike again last year’s record attack. Even the team defending, which was below average last season, has been impressive lately, ranking eighth best since Feb. 8. On Monday, the Mavs defeated mighty Utah, giving them their 18th victory in that span, one in which they posted the fifth-best record in the league. But it’s impossible to explain the club’s success without acknowledging Brunson, especially in recent times as he has helped lift reserves to new levels. Dammit, these guys are playing like headlines heights in recent months.
Brunson was already enjoying a career year through early February, nearly shooting 50-40-90 (52.2%, 41.5%, and 89.4% through February 7, to be exact) to average 11, 6 points and 3.4 assists. However, in that span, the Mavs were scoring just 108.1 points per 100 possessions, and were outscored by 3.2 points in those periods, with Brunson on the floor.
However, in the last two months things have changed. Dallas is draining 116.8 points per 100 possessions, knocking down foes by 11.3 points with Brunson, compared to a mere 1.4 more without the secondary southpaw.
Brunson, who last year recorded 8.2 points on 46.6% shooting, is playing the best ball of his life, averaging 17.4 points and 4.0 assists on 61% shooting in his last seven games; including 47.6% from beyond the arc.
During the fourth period of that Monday victory over the red-hot Jazz, Mavericks announcer Derek Harper said Brunson “looks like the best shooting guard on the court tonight,” an incredible statement in a game that three All-Star guards – Dončić, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell – were playing.
The 24-year-old southpaw has unusually astute Nash-like ability in his game when maneuvering into the paint. one that confuses defenders as it twists and turns its relatively small frame near the edge. Even when stopping early and letting his man fly by his side, Brunson has a nice, controlled distance that he can use to throw shots comfortably, although he’s always at a distinct height disadvantage.
It’s almost terrifying to see how much Brunson has excelled despite being so small. Frankly, he hasn’t helped defenses stop him in the paint this season. Nor is it that they have been able to stop him elsewhere. He has shot 54.7% from mid-range (35 of 64) and 51.3% (20 of 39) from three-point corners.
But you have to do a double take, maybe even a triple take, to realize that no NBA guard has been more accurate from the restricted area this season than Brunson, with 73.6%. Even with a broader look, all players who drive and shoot at least four times per game, only one player, the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, has a better field goal percentage on such plays. (Barely). With 62.5%, 6-1 Brunson finishes units more efficiently than freight train 6-8 LeBron James.
He’s on his way to becoming the first player in 44 years to stand 6 ‘1 “or less and shoot 60% from a two-point range, according to Stathead. But sometimes the third-year guard, who shoots only nine times a game, leaves you wishing he was a little more selfish. Take the loss in Houston, for example, where Dončić bit off more than he could chew, hitting 9 of 26 for 23 points with as many turnovers (five) as assists. Brunson, a heady player who never forces anything, finished 5 of 7 for 14 points, three assists and no turnovers.
“It has made improvements in all areas. Your body is stronger and more durable. He’s constantly improving, ”says Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He has a gift for both making plays and scoring. His defense is consistent; he is a very reliable team defender. Better than people give you credit for. This is the third year and I see him getting better and better every year. “
If ever there was a coach who isn’t ashamed to use a pair of playmakers simultaneously, it’s Carlisle, who made hay with scoring dynamo JJ Barea, and thrived on Devin Harris before that. “Dallas is the backup Point Guard U,” analyst Nekias Duncan said during his podcast, The Dunker Point.
As with Barea and Harris, it’s easy to imagine Brunson finishing big games with starters down the stretch; particularly if the Mavs get small – Kristaps Porzingis is a Mario mystery box from a health standpoint – or if one of Josh Richardson or Tim Hardaway, Jr. experiences a Siberian cold snap.
That option didn’t exist last year. Dallas, which found itself in a series of bubbles in the first round of takedown and drag with the Clippers, did not count on Brunson as he recovered from a procedure on his right shoulder.
Besides playing, no one will mistake Brunson, a player whose career so far more closely mirrors Cory Joseph and BJ Armstrong, according to the FiveThirtyEight player projection model, for being the superstar of the Mavericks. Dončić, who is still 22 years old, is clearly that guy. But maybe there’s something to the fact that Brunson’s compositions also set the table alongside transcendent stars on the road to NBA titles.
Obviously, it’s still early in the timeline for this Dallas club. But having Brunson healthy and anywhere near this level during a stretch gives an already scary Mavs offense even more possibilities than it previously enjoyed.
MORE TAKE IN THE MORNING
Pina: Chicago’s future is brighter than it seems
Mannix: Why you shouldn’t worry about the Lakers
Shapiro: Inside the Rockets rebuild
Nadkarni: Should the Warriors go pick-and-roll?
Herring: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP from the beginning
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.