For the first time in what feels like ages, the Western Conference is really and truly wide-open. It’s so packed together that the Mavericks have climbed four spots in the standings from 11th to seventh simply by winning three straight games. And with a win tonight against the Bucks, they could climb as high as fifth.

One of just five teams in the league riding at least a three-game win streak, key Mavericks seem to have rediscovered their shooting stroke, namely Luka Dončić and Tim Hardaway Jr., the first pair of teammates in NBA history to each hit 4+ 3-pointers in at least five games in a row.

Hardaway in particular has been absolutely scorching, knocking in nearly as many treys in his last five games (30) as he had all season combined before this stretch (35). We know the Mavericks are going to take at least 40 three-pointers every night, and if you take ‘em, you might as well make ‘em. The same could be said about free throws, and fortunately the Mavs have lately been hitting them, too.

Dallas might not have come out of the gate as quickly as we hoped to see, but neither have most of the other projected juggernauts in the conference, from the Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers to Steph Curry and the Warriors to Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves.

That means the suddenly red-hot Mavs have an opportunity to capitalize on their recently improved run of play and establish footing in the top-6 before their perceived prime competitors can do the same.

Tough losses earlier in the season can be made up for by winning a tougher game today. And with the entire basketball world watching, this nationally televised game will certainly not be easy.

In a season when it seems there’s more parity than ever before in the West, the Milwaukee Bucks are still managing to remain miles ahead of most of the competition out East. Only three teams in the Eastern Conference are more than two games over-.500 and the Bucks are comfortably one of them. At 18-6, Milwaukee has the second-best record in the league, all while reintegrating All-Star guard Khris Middleton who missed the beginning of the season due to injury.

The Bucks, by the way, are one of the four other teams who have won three straight games, making this a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the league.

The Mavs and Bucks have played some classics over the years, from Luka’s overtime masterpiece in the bubble to the Luka-less Mavs barely holding off Giannis Antetokounmpo on a 48-point night. Most recently, Grayson Allen wrote his own chapter in the story, knocking down seven straight 3-pointers to begin the game as he scored 25 points in a 124-115 Bucks win over the Mavs on Nov. 27.

Every time these two teams play Luka and Giannis, two of the brightest stars in the NBA galaxy, bring out the best in each other. There’s plenty of mutual respect in this budding friendly rivalry between perennial MVP candidates. These games, though, always seem to be decided by which supporting player has the biggest night. If recent history holds, Tim Hardaway Jr. could be X-factor. If you’re Dallas, that would be preferable to a Grayson Allen repeat, that’s for sure.

These are the kinds of games where heroes can emerge and statements can be made. Dallas has strung together a few nice wins, but this one would be a jewel for sure. It’s one of 82 – don’t oversell the importance of just one game in early December – but if the Mavs can win this one, especially with a few more home games coming up next week, it would send a loud message that their funk is well behind them and that the better days aren’t still ahead, they’re already here.

  • When: 9 p.m., Friday.
  • Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas.
  • TV: Bally’s Sports Southwest, ESPN.
  • Radio:1 The Freak, 99.1 FM Zona MX (Spanish).
  • Twitter: @bobbykaralla

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