For Jalen Brunson, his career-high assist outing was a byproduct of nothing more than playing off instinct.

On the road to 11 total dimes Tuesday night, he just took what the defense gave him. The game was nothing more than reading and reacting. It was second nature. No, it was the zone.

“The zone is different for everybody,” Brunson said. “For me, I don’t hear the crowd. I don’t hear the noise on the outside. For me, the zone is the line inside 50 feet. Whatever the defense is giving me, I am going to choose to do. If they are giving me opportunities to score, I am going to take those opportunities. If it’s the opposite, to pass, I am going to take those opportunities.

“The zone is not predetermining what I am going to do. It’s playing off of instinct.”

Very rarely can players get in the zone when it comes to passing the ball. And that’s due to a myriad of reasons. However, the primary explanation is quite simple. To garner assists, teammates have to make open shots.

That is why so few players ever reach ‘the zone’ status when it comes to creating for others. The passer is rarely fully involved in the destiny of the shot they helped create.

“They don’t come a lot, in the sense of a zone, because you need a partner,” Kidd said. “You think they would happen more, but it’s hard.”

The history of high-assist games

Hard, by Kidd, undersells the difficulty of racking up quality assists.

In the age of offensive explosions in the NBA, one record still standing is Scott Skiles’ 30-assist night on Dec. 30, 1990. The closest player to breaking that record in recent years was Rajon Rondo in 2017 with 25 assists. Russell Westbrook scratched the surface of the record, as well, with 24 assists in 2019.

Dating back to the 90s, Kidd came close with 25, as well, in 1996. Finding the passing zone isn’t just hard; it’s almost impossible. A good pass may fall through teammates’ hands and result in a turnover. A no-look pass may end up as an airball or smoked layup. And a fast break, routine play, sometimes just won’t end up as a score. Unlike scoring, assisting has a wider range of variables the player passing can’t control.

The gifted passer and the zone

Gifted passers see the game differently. They relish and find comfort in being in the zone. Steve Nash made a living there. So did Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. And the same was true with Kidd, and now with Luka Dončić.

With Kidd as Dončić’s head coach, he recognizes the passing aspect of the 22-year-old star’s game. Dončić can almost sleepwalk his way into double-digit assists on a nightly basis.

In fact, Kidd likens Dončić’s playmaking ability to a great NFL quarterback, who commands an offense while demanding the utmost respect from the opposing defense.

“When you look at Luka as a quarterback, it’s one of those NFL-type quarterbacks where, on the opening drive, they go seven for seven. You know they’re in the zone,” Kidd said. “It’s very rare. We always talk about the shooting zone or the feeling where you can’t miss. But as a passer, it’s a rare thing to be in a zone, because you need teammates to be able to make those shots.”

Brunson’s contribution

However, after Tuesday night, Dončić may not be the only good passer within the Mavericks’ ranks. When the defense forced him to find teammates, instead of scoring the ball, Brunson held his own.

He tied his career-high in assists. And though Brunson may never reach ‘the zone’ levels of the transcendent and gifted playmakers in the history of this game, he can do enough to take the load off Dončić for crucial stretches throughout a long season.

The zone is different for everyone. However, when it comes to playmaking, Brunson is still scratching the surface of his.

“It’s always been about improving every aspect of my game,” Brunson said. “I play the cards I am dealt. Last year, I kinda had to play more off-ball when Luka is in the game. It’s just knowing when to score and when to make plays – last year we just needed more of a scorer. This year, I am just trying to find ways to balance that. I am reading what the defense gives me. Some nights it’s passing and creating for others, and some nights it will be more one-on-one.”

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Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.