Saturday night's NBA action went a long way toward setting up the season's impending playoff drive. The Utah Jazz headed in the wrong direction, the Denver Nuggets put the pedal down as only they can, and the Phoenix Suns served as a speed bump for the Houston Rockets.
Teams aside, there were some big individual performances that helped a few players stand out on the NBA map, too. Anthony Davis flirted with a 20-20 night, John Wall did something he had done only once all season, and the Milwaukee Bucks backcourt duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings blitzed the Golden State Warriors.
And guess what, the idle L.A. Lakers benefited from almost everything that took place.
Buckle up as we cruise through a slate of games that'll help determine which clubs are on the road to playoff success and which ones are headed in for repairs.
It's not just that the Atlanta Hawks dropped a home game against the Brooklyn Nets by a final score of 93-80. And it's not just that they never got close after the first quarter.
The real problem here is that Atlanta has now lost five out of six games and seems to be heading in the wrong direction at the worst possible time.
At 34-28, the Hawks now have two-and-a-half games to make up if they're to have any hope of a home playoff series in the first round. But the upcoming schedule could actually shift Atlanta's focus from the teams above them to the team below.
With its next four games against the Miami Heat, L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns (who beat Atlanta on March 1) and the Nets, Atlanta could very well slip closer to the No. 8 seed currently occupied by the Milwaukee Bucks. Nobody wants the final seed under any circumstances, but with the juggernaut Heat looming as the certain No. 1 team in the East, that final position may as well be a death sentence.
The Hawks may be in trouble.
The New York Knicks didn't have Carmelo Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire, but that didn't matter against the reeling Utah Jazz. Thanks to 50 percent shooting from the floor and 41 percent from long range, the Knicks handed the Jazz their fourth straight loss, and, more importantly, dropped them into a virtual tie with the L.A. Lakers for the final playoff spot out West.
The Jazz were without Paul Millsap and got just seven points from Al Jefferson, as the Knicks whipped the ball around on offense and forced 19 Utah turnovers on the other end.
Coach Tyrone Corbin has been trotting out some curious lineup combinations of late, favoring Mo Williams and Randy Foye a bit more than their performances would seem to warrant. But really, it's hard to know whether any five-man unit from the clearly disheartened Jazz team would have put up a fight against the Knicks.
The immediate result of Utah's poor performance was an embarrassing 113-84 loss, but the long-term effects of their late-season swoon will most likely include a lottery selection.
That collective intake of breath you heard coming from the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday was caused by John Wall doing something truly rare in the Wizards' 104-87 win over the visiting Charlotte Bobcats.
No, Wall didn't execute an ankle-breaking crossover or sprint up the floor at Mach 2; he does those things all the time. And the wicked chase-down block he served up to poor Kemba Walker was nice, but even that wasn't the reason for the utter shock that rippled through the Verizon Center.
For the first time in nearly six weeks, Wall hit a three.
Coming into Saturday's game, the Wizards point guard had shot just 17 triples in the 27 games he'd played this season. Of those attempts, just one—a long bomb against the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 1—went in. Understandably, folks were shocked when Wall doubled his season total of made triples against the 'Cats.
Really, the only reason this is a takeaway is because Wall is painfully close to being a legitimate star at the point. But one of the last things he needs is a reliable jumper. Until he starts to knock down perimeter shots on a regular basis, his long-distance buckets will always be notable.
Well hello there, Anthony Davis. Though Damian Lillard's big rookie season in Portland has caused some to forget about the No. 1 pick in last June's draft, a few more performance like the one Davis posted against the Memphis Grizzlies will certainly help him reintroduce himself to the masses.
Up against the Grizzlies, who were tied for No. 1 in the NBA in rebound rate going into Saturday's game, Davis pulled down a game-high 18 boards. His length, quickness and soft hands seemed to literally attract missed shots.
Paired with his 20 points on 9-of-20 shooting, Davis' work on the glass gave a real glimpse into what kind of player he could become. Never mind that Zach Randolph missed the game, Davis still had to tangle with Marc Gasol and Ed Davis inside.
The New Orleans Hornets fell, 96-85, but at this point, they're really not concerned with winning games. So the loss isn't going to make them feel all that bad. What they should be feeling particularly good about, though, is Davis' potential to become the franchise cornerstone they hoped he'd be when they picked him first in the 2012 draft.
Terrifying result: Ty Lawson scored 32 points and the Denver Nuggets shot nearly 54 percent from the floor.
Caveat: Those things happened against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are basically falling apart before our eyes.
Still, Denver's eighth straight win, this one a 111-88 laughter at home against the 'Wolves, displayed the kind of relentless offensive style that is sure to make the Nuggets an absolute nightmare for whichever team is unlucky enough to face them in the postseason.
Lawson's 32 points came on just 17 shots, and he was a perfect 4-of-4 from long range. As a team, Denver piled up 26 points on the break, forced 22 turnovers and amassed 54 points in the paint in its easy demolition of the lowly Timberwolves.
Right now, the Nuggets are two games behind the L.A. Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West, and if they can secure that spot over the next few weeks, watch out.
Winners of nine out of their last 10, the Nuggets are putting a real scare into the rest of the Western Conference.
The Houston Rockets, fresh off of a 94-88 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, dropped a surprising 107-105 contest to the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns. Considering the two teams' relative positions in the standings (Houston sits in the No. 7 spot, while Phoenix is second-to-last), it would have been reasonable to expect an easy Rockets win.
But Houston's high-octane attack ran out of gas, which has been a pretty common occurrence for the Rockets this year.
No team fares particularly well on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Rockets' up-and-down style makes them particularly vulnerable in those situations. They're now just 5-13 in the second game of such sets, and their shooting dips noticeably when they're playing without rest, as NBA.com's advanced stats tool indicates.
James Harden still pumped in 38 points, and the Rockets shot 46 percent from long range, so this defeat isn't cause for major concern in the short term. Over the long haul, though, it's a good reminder to coach Kevin McHale that the team's fast-paced style might mean he'll have to rest some of his big guns periodically down the stretch.
But now that the Lakers are just 1.5 games behind the Rockets in the standings, he might not be afforded that luxury.
As discussed earlier, the Knicks knocked off the Jazz without Carmelo Anthony. And, considering that New York played pretty darn well without him in a 95-94 loss to OKC on Thursday, maybe Mike Woodson's club is better off without Melo...
Just kidding! That's ridiculous.
But it is a good sign that New York can carry on without its star, mostly because it'll mean the Knicks will be less likely to rush Anthony back from the sore knee that has now kept him off of the floor for three straight games.
Whether the Knicks are actually better without Amar'e Stoudemire, well...that's another story.
We've heard it before: Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are too small, too defensively indifferent, and too duplicative in their skills to ever be a viable NBA backcourt.
Well, even if that's probably true over the long haul, the Milwaukee Bucks' 103-93 victory over the Golden State Warriors showed why the undersized tandem remains an intriguing combination.
The pair combined for 57 points on an uncharacteristically economical 20-of-35 from the field. Ellis darted into the lane, finishing a handful of his trademark acrobatic shots, while Jennings bombed away from the perimeter, hitting 6-of-11 from three.
Ironically, it was the Warriors guards who couldn't find their strokes. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot just 14-of 35. The loss dropped the Warriors to 35-29 overall, helping the Lakers (yes, them again) to pull within just 2.5 games of the No. 6 seed.
The Bucks are a full-on lock to make the postseason, as they now enjoy a healthy eight-and-a-half game lead on the ninth-ranked Toronto Raptors for the No. 8 spot in the East. Now, it'll be all about finding a way to get this kind of performance from their often frustrating, but occasionally spectacular guards more often.