Dallas, Texas — Maybe it was the incredulous chants from the passionate Dallas Mavericks fans who flooded American Airlines Center Monday night.
Maybe, it was the belief that if enough could go Dallas’ way, this series, which felt dead in the water after Game 1, could find some life. Or perhaps it was the feeling around the team that if Dallas could steal one game at home, and head to Utah with the series tied at one game apiece, the plausibility of Luka Doncic’s return would be enough to swing the series back in Dallas’ favor.
Either way, Dallas heard the calls to respond. And though Jalen Brunson led the way with a career-high 41 points. It was Maxi Kleber who moved the needle with 25 points and eight made 3-point jump shots — throwing his hat in the ring of needed contributions in Dallas’ 110-104 win.
“Today we needed him,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “He was huge for us.”
How Maxi Kleber changed the game
What allowed Utah to control Game 1 was Dallas’ inability to hit open 3-point shots.
Rudy Gobert was able to do what he does best — camp around the rim and thwart layup attempts.
In Game 2, it all changed.
Kleber was left open as Gobert went to help on a drive to the basket. His first shot kissed the front of the rim and was welcomed with groans from the fans. It nearly touched the top of the backboard. It looked familiar. And then it didn’t. The shot went in.
Once one fell, the rest felt like a forgone conclusion. When Gobert shaded over to help again, Kleber burned him in the corner. If Gobert crashed the glass, Kleber relocated and made him pay.
“He was just able to make the right play,” Brunson said. “When Maxi is hitting, he’s on fire. That’s big-time for him… The way he played tonight, he’s just incredible.”
As a result, this game had shades of the 2021 LA Clippers. Gobert — for as good as he is — couldn’t guard anyone. And still, Utah’s center remained deadset on protecting the basket. So, Dallas took what he gave it. Correct, Kleber took what Gobert left for the taking — open threes.
Call it stubbornness; call it a commitment to a scheme; call it whatever you want, but Dallas picked apart Gobert, adding fuel to the fire of his supposed overrated stature. Kleber was merely the latest kindling.
The slow-footed Gobert gave Dallas 17 uncontested 3-point shots, the most by any team in the last 10 postseasons. And Kleber’s teammates didn’t want to take the credit for the record. In many ways, they knew where it belonged, and who it belonged to.
“That’s all because of Maxi,” Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 17 points, said of the record.
Maxi’s gravity going into Game 3
The saying goes, “ain’t no fun when the rabbits got the gun.” And for one half, despite Brunson’s effusive efforts, Dallas was out-manned and out-gunned.
Thanks to Kleber, and his onslaught of unexpected offense, the hunted became the hunter.
“Every time I was open, I shot the ball,” Kleber said. “I didn’t think much about it.”
With 3:46 left in the game, Kleber hit a 3-point jumper to give Dallas a 102-98 lead. A timeout was called right after the play. At that moment, as Gobert walked off the court, a teammate met him near the midline and patted him on the chest. It looked like he was telling him everything was ok.
It wasn’t. And one has to believe that with three minutes left to play, Kleber cooking, and Mavericks fans rocking, Gobert knew what was happening and couldn’t stop it. He’d played chess with Dallas and lost. Checkmate.
As he came out of the huddle and played the final minutes of the game, he didn’t have an impact. Utah rarely looks to him to score in crunch time. Besides, he looked dazed, stunned, confused, or disappointed. In reality, it was just that he was losing to a team that his Jazz had out-manned and out-gunned for nearly half of the game.
Dallas’ changed disposition
The door was left open, and Dallas walked through. And in winning, the team also bought Doncic another day of rest in the process. Heading to Utah with the series tied is drastically different than down 2-0.
“Like I said after Game 1, there is a reason for optimism,” Dinwiddie said. “There is still a reason for optimism after Game 2.”
In Kleber’s hot night, as his 3-point jump shot found the holy grail, the age-old adage still bodes true for Utah, maybe even more so — the game ain’t no fun when the rabbits got the gun.
“I had the hot hand,” Kleber said. “I’m just going to keep shooting.”
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Feature image via Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports.