Marcus Smart is back for the Celtics; LaMelo Ball takes on LeBron James; Atlanta Hawks continue to rise - why you need to watch the NBA on Sky Sports this week.
Are the Utah Jazz floundering?
For a brief moment it looked as though Utah were unstoppable. They began the season going 23-5, a franchise record, and even had three players in the All-Star Game. That was unthinkable for just about everyone, even Jazz fans, but especially LeBron James.
Since that run, however, Rudy Gobert and company have gone 5-5. They're starting to lose tight games to other contending teams, going down by four to the Clippers and by eight to the Heat and the Sixers recently.
On Sunday, they were played off the floor by Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and a bunch of Warriors bench players. Watching at home, LeBron was probably licking his lips.
Gobert, it must be said, had a huge game, putting up 24 points and 28 rebounds (a single-game franchise record). The problem remains the same. Curry got several good looks when he attacked Gobert in the pick and roll down the stretch.
While the French center remains an elite rim protector and presence in the paint, he's toast out on the perimeter and teams will continue to target this come the playoffs. There's a lot for Quin Snyder to think about heading into two tricky fixtures against the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.
Still, if the Jazz really do want to cement themselves as contenders in the West, how they react from this mini-slump will say a lot about their chances.
Live NBA: Utah @ Toronto 19.03
The return of Marcus Smart, life and soul of Boston
As it stands, the Celtics currently have the fourth best defensive rating in the Eastern Conference, behind the Sixers, Heat and Tom Thibodeau-led Knicks. Considering their best on-ball defender Marcus Smart has missed their last 18 games, that's pretty impressive going.
Now Smart is back and while he is only playing 20 minutes a night as he returns to full fitness, don't be surprised if his return has a tremendous impact on the Celtics. Not only is he the heart and soul of this roster, all grit, hustle and determination - the player everyone hates to play against but loves on their own team - but he's an underrated facilitator too. Smart was averaging six assists per game before he went down with a calf tear at the end of January.
Without Smart, the Celtics seemed to lose their fight and collective spirit. This was perhaps best demonstrated when they were 22 points down to the hapless Wizards through three quarters in mid-February. Now he's back, expect their form to improve through the second half of the season.
Live NBA: Utah @ Boston 16.03
Luka passing first
Luka Doncic has averaged 13 assists in the last three games for the Dallas Mavericks, including a ludicrous 16 dimes on Monday night in the loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The other two performances led to impressive double-digit wins against the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets - no slouches in the Western Conference.
What's important is that Luka didn't shoot the ball particularly well in any game, which is unsurprising given the fact that he is often the sole focus of opposing defenses and that the degree of difficulty for a lot of the shots he attempts is off the charts.
Doncic's percentages won't matter too much if he is generating open looks for his team-mates with this consistent ease. It's a happy cycle: once the likes of Josh Richardson, Jalen Brunson and Kristaps Porzingis start knocking down shots, it opens Luka up a little more to get his own.
At this point in his career, and with the West as stacked as it is, neither Doncic nor the Mavericks will go very far with him carrying the team on his back night in and night out. Dallas have a shot at revenge against the Clippers on Thursday night. Doncic likely won't match 16 assists, but expect him to keep the double-digit streak alive.
Live NBA: LA Clippers @ Dallas 17.03
LaMelo vs LeBron
One became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double this season. The other became the first with 10 triple-doubles after turning 35 years old.
It might not seem like the most obvious comparison, but LaMelo Ball and LeBron James share a whole lot of their basketball DNA with one another. LeBron, of course, is the true pioneer of the point guard position with power forward size. Ball, in only his first season in the league, is keeping that lineage alive.
Since becoming the Charlotte Hornets' de facto starting point guard at the beginning of February, LaMelo has been balling out, putting up 20 points, six rebounds, seven assists and two steals per contest. Compare that to James' rookie numbers and the resemblance is uncanny.
LeBron had 21 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals per game in his debut season too, but was a much shakier three-point and free-throw shooter in that stage of his career than LaMelo.
That being said, there is zero chance Ball surpasses or even equals the career of James. However, given the way Ball rebounds, runs the floor and throws flashy passes from all angles, as well as scoring 20 a night, it's not hard to envisage him keeping the torch alive for the all-round basketball-savants-with-size prototype.
Fortunately, this is a league that also contains the aforementioned Luka Doncic, another direct descendant infused with all LeBron's technical and tactical excellence. It appears as though we will still be treated long after the King decides to call it a day, which hopefully won't come anytime soon.
Live NBA: Charlotte @ LA Lakers 18.03
The Hawks rising
Get this: since firing Lloyd Pierce on the first of March and appointing his assistant Nate McMillan as interim head coach, the Hawks have won five straight games. That might not sound like much, but it's the longest winning streak in four seasons in Atlanta. First of all: yikes. Second of all: they have, at least, jumped to eight in the Eastern Conference ahead of the Raptors, Bulls and Pacers.
Sometimes a coaching change makes all the difference, but credit must go to two of the players the Hawks acquired for the exact purpose of pushing them towards playoff contention - Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari.
Swiss center Capela has been a monster on the boards this season, leading the league with 14 rebounds per game. Not only that, but he is also swallowing up 26.4 per cent of Atlanta's misses, the greediest mark in the NBA ahead of Andre Drummond (inactive since February), Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas and Rudy Gobert.
As for Gallinari, while he can be a patchy scorer over the full course of a season, he's been lights out during this current stretch. Over the last four games he's averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a steal while shooting a preposterous 48 per cent from three. It likely won't last but that is exactly the kind of production the Hawks were banking on when they signed him to a three-year deal worth $61.5m in November.
Let's see if they can keep it up as Atlanta attempts to lock themselves in for the post-season.