The Extra Pass: Central heat, plus Monday’s recaps

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No NBA head coach has been fired yet this season. Of course, “yet” is the key word there.

Given the performances and the high expectations of a few teams in the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, that could be changing soon. Here’s a look at the tenuous positions of three coaches from that division, in order of seat warmth.

Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

Brown’s recent history might not play into his favor. If you’ll recall, the Los Angeles Lakers axed Brown just five games into the season last year, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t strike anyone as the patient type.

To say the Cavs have quit on Brown would falsely imply that they were ever committed in the first place. Cleveland is now a whopping 15 games under .500, and in their last five games, the Cavs have lost by an average of 16.4 points.

It’s one thing to be just plain bad (like Cavs GM Chris Grant’s drafting), but the Cavs are dysfunctional both on and off the court. There are reports of players getting thrown out of practice and threatening not to play, which doesn’t seem like much of a threat given the effort level from players like Dion Waiters.

New acquisition Luol Deng reportedly called the Cavs “a mess”, which isn’t exactly what you want to hear from a player who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Deng is right about the state of the Cavs, though, and sooner or later, someone is going to take the fall. Brown is in the first season of a five-year deal worth $20 million, with four years fully guaranteed. Is Gilbert ready to swallow his losses and pay Brown to go away? It’s not an easy decision, but it would be a surprise if Brown and Grant didn’t lose their jobs by the end of the year after this complete collapse. Get the bowties ready, Gilberts.

Maurice Cheeks, Detroit Pistons

The Central Division is home to many a failing team, and the Pistons were another that was supposed to contend for a playoff berth. While Detroit is sadly somehow still in the race, Cheeks has been largely unable to figure out how to make the frontcourt trio of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond work.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been vocal lately about Detroit’s lack of preparation and failure to maximize talent, which is a not so subtle shot at a coaching staff if you’ve ever heard one. Pistons GM Joe Dumars is on an expiring contract this year, so perhaps Gores will opt to clean house completely and let go of Dumars and Cheeks at the end of the season.

Unless Smith starts to figure it out and the clashes between he and Cheeks stop, it might be easier to just fire Cheeks and move on. Coaches are usually the first to go when things get bad, and for better or worse, the Pistons are tied to Smith long-term.

Larry Drew, Milwaukee Bucks

It seems as though the Bucks may be finally ready to accept temporary losing on an organization level, which could take them off the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.

That doesn’t mean that first-year coach Larry Drew will be safe or rewarded for his losing efforts, though. The Bucks should have never been quite this bad in the first place, and Drew has completely sunk the trade value of some of Milwaukee’s biggest names while also not giving some of his young players nearly enough playing time. It’s the worst of both worlds in Milwaukee right now, and Drew’s constantly fluctuating rotations seem to be driving everyone up the wall.

While management may be content with gaining a high pick in the draft this year, don’t expect owner Herb Kohl to sign off on a lengthy rebuilding process. The Bucks will want to be competitive quickly, and given this season’s performance and a pretty underwhelming track record, you have to think Drew’s job will security will be a bit shaky.

Don’t forget to factor in the success of a few rookie coaches around the league, either. Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer all came from three different backgrounds and experience levels, but each has earned praise at every stop. You couldn’t blame Kohl and company if they opted to take their chance on a new coach instead of sticking with the retread that led the team to what will likely be one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

D.J. Foster

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Wizards 100, Blazers 90: Washington got over .500 with this victory for the first time in seemingly forever, but perhaps more importantly took down one of the Western Conference elite for the second straight game. After snapping the Thunder’s 10-game winning streak on Saturday, the Wizards shut down the Blazers’ high-powered outside shooting attack in this one. Portland has built this season’s reputation on sharp-shooting from everywhere, but especially from three-point distance. The Blazers shot just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in the second half, and for a tea that’s second in the league in three-point shooting percentage, a performance like that will almost always spell disaster. — Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Magic 79: No surprise here, as the Magic have the worst road record in the league and improved (?) to just 3-22 away from Orlando on the season after this one. The second half was gross on both sides, but the Pacers outscored the Magic 39-29 over the final two periods, and that was more than enough to seal it. There were unremarkable performances all around, a clear reflection of Orlando not being very good, along with Indiana realizing it and playing down to its competition. — BP

Heat 102, Pistons 96: The fact that Detroit can hang with Miami speaks to just how much trouble the Heat have with the very few teams that can throw talented big men at them in a given matchup. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe combined for 29 points and 23 rebounds, and helped the Pistons outrebound the Heat by seven. With points in the paint and turnovers basically even, it was up to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to ensure a Miami victory. Wade was especially good in this one, finishing with a game-high 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, to go along with 10 rebounds and five assists. — BP

Nets 108, Sixers 102: Brooklyn was playing without All-Star Joe Johnson in this one due to knee tendinitis, and Andrei Kirilenko was also sidelined to rest a calf injury sustained in practice. The Nets held a 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter, before the Sixers rallied and were within two with under a minute to play. Paul Pierce took on the scoring load with Johnson sidelined, finishing with 25 points on just nine shots, thanks to knocking down all 14 of his free throw attempts. — BP

Bucks 101, Knicks 98: Bad loss for the Knicks. They failed to bring the necessary energy on the road in a more-than-half-empty arena against the league’s worst team, and in a close game down the stretch, they paid the price. Brandon Knight calmly dribbled down the clock and hit the game-winning three with less than two seconds remaining, and Carmelo Anthony’s heave over two defenders at the buzzer failed to draw iron. Anthony finished with 36 points in the losing effort, 17 of which came in the fourth as he tried desperately to bring his team back. J.R. Smith had a strong game with 30 off the bench, while Knight finished with a team-high 25 points and seven assists for the Bucks. — BP

Spurs 102, Pelicans 95: New Orleans thought they had this one, up 14 early in the fourth quarter, then Tim Duncan and Tony Parker happened. The Pelicans were pick-and-rolled to death — the Spurs big would come up and drag defender Greg Stiemsma or Alexi Ajinca into the play, then Parker just carved them up, with 21 points on 13 shots in the second half (Parker had 32 for the game). Also in the second half Tim Duncan showed that young whippersnapper Anthony Davis who can block some shots, rejecting five in the half. San Antonio went on a 21-4 run early in the fourth quarter, made the key plays down the stretch and started off their rodeo road trip with a win. — Kurt Helin

Thunder 86, Grizzlies 77: Last week the Thunder beat the Heat going small and playing fast. Monday night they beat Memphis playing big in a slow, grinding kind of game that should have favored the Grizzlies. The versatility of the Thunder roster is impressive… plus that Kevin Durant guy is pretty good. Durant had 31 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, Serge Ibaka chipped in 21. Memphis missed Mike Conley orchestrating their offense, they are just not the same without him. –KH

Mavericks 124, Cavaliers 107: The defense in my regular Monday night pick-up game might well have been better than whatever that was Cleveland was doing — Dallas had a true shooting percentage of 67.8 percent and an offensive rating of 131.3 (points per 100 possessions). Dirk Nowitzki had 23 to lead six Mavs in double figures. Samuel Dalembert looked good with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Kyrie Irving had 27 points, Luol Deng hustled his way to 18 but the Cavs are just a mess. –KH

Nuggets 116, Clippers 115: For much of the night this was a fun power forward battle — Blake Griffin had 15 points in the first quarter on his way to 36 on the night. Kenneth Faried had his best night of the season getting 28 points with his hustle plays and strong baseline cuts. Then came the best ending of the season. First the Clippers were down one and looking to get the ball inside but when that failed J.J. Redick drove, drew the defenders and kicked out to Matt Barnes for a three. He drains it, Clippers up two. Then Denver gets one last shot and there is clearly miscommunication as the play breaks down, so Randy Foye ends up having to take a leaning three as the clock expires and… you can see the play above in our video of the night. Amazing shot. –KH

Raptors 94, Jazz 79: Toronto took control of this game when it went on a 14-4 run to start the second, something sparked by DeMar DeRozan, who had 12 of his 23 in the quarter. Toronto never fully pulled away but never gave up the lead. Jonas Valanciunas really outplayed the Jazz front line and had 18 points and 9 rebounds. Kyle Lowry left the game with a sore knee but said after the game it wasn’t serious. Let’s hope so. Marvin Williams had 23 for Utah. –KH

Kings 99, Bulls 70: This was a physical, chippy game where the Bulls could not get their offense going — then they got frustrated and started making mistakes. Then Joakim Noah got ejected. Then the Bulls unraveled completely and the Kings won going away. DeMarcus Cousins had 25 points and 16 boards and Isaiah Thomas added 19. Nice home win for the Kings. –KH

Paul Pierce after final NBA game: “I gave every ounce I could, each and every day” (VIDEO)

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That’s it for Paul Pierce.

The Los Angeles Clippers lost in Game 7 of their first round series against the Utah Jazz, and in doing so ended an illustrious 19-year NBA career for The Truth.

Pierce, 39, saw his team go down by a score of 104-91. The former Boston Celtics star also saw time with the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before making his final stop in LA.

After the game, Pierce thanked his fans in every NBA city.

Via Twitter:

Current and former NBA players got in on congratulating Pierce on an incredible career on social media:

Shout out to Paul Pierce for an incredible career.

We meet again: Cavaliers, Raptors back together in postseason

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CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.

One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.

On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.

“They know us,” James said, “and we know them.”

After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.

The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.

These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.

“We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. “The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”

They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.

“He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. “One of these days … one of these days.”

For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.

“The two-headed monster,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.

DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance.

Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:

ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.

The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.

“Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. “But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”

Or in this case, all of Canada.

KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.

Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.

FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.

None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.

DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.

“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. “His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”

ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ Markieff Morris rolled his ankle so hard he “thought it was broke” (VIDEO)

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The Washington Wizards dropped Game 1 of their semi final round against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. A big part of that loss was the absence of Markieff Morris, who turned his ankle with just a few minutes to go in the first quarter.

Morris was shooting a jumper from the left elbow extended with Boston’s Al Horford contesting. Horford didn’t give Morris enough of a chance to land, and a foul was called.

The video of Morris’ ankle turning is pretty gross, especially if you’re a basketball player, so just be forewarned.

Via Twitter:

After the game Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he did not have an update on Morris’ status but that they would see how he was feeling on Monday.

Morris, meanwhile, said he initially thought he had broken his ankle.

Speaking to MassLive.com, Morris said as much:

“This was my worst one,” Morris said. “I kind of twist my ankles like this, that’s my injury, an ankle twist. But this was by far the worst one. I honestly thought it was broke. They got the swelling to go down a whole lot, but it almost was like the size of a softball.”

Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday.

Utah’s depth, 26 from Gordon Hayward lift Jazz to Game 7 win 104-91, eliminates Clippers

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This ended up being a series — and a Game 7 — about depth.

Without Blake Griffin, the Clippers depth was tested and faltered, particularly on the offensive end. The Clippers scored just 15 points in the third quarter of Game 7 as the Jazz took a comfortable lead. Los Angeles shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three in Game 7. J.J. Redick was a non-factor. A Los Angeles offense that averaged 110.3 points per 100 possessions during the season was at 94.7 in Game 7 and 107.7 for the entire postseason

Utah, on the other hand, had their star center Rudy Gobert in foul trouble all game — he played 5 minutes in the first half, 13:26 for the game, and finished with just one point. Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer on the season, started the game 4-of-14 through three quarters (but played a strong fourth and finished with 26 points).

The difference was Utah got a huge Game 7 from Derrick Favors, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, that made up for what the Jazz lost with Gobert. George Hill added 17 points at the point for Utah, which had seven players in double figures. They found ways to get offense from sources other than their brightest stars.

Combine that depth with the fantastic defense the Jazz played all season and the result was an impressive 104-91 win in Game 7 on the road. Utah beat the Clippers three out of four games in Staples Center this series (and Los Angeles picked up one in Utah).

The win advances the Jazz to take on the Warriors starting Tuesday night in Oakland.

The game was also the final one in an amazing 19-year career for Paul Pierce. The Clipper forward said he would retire at the end of the season, and he is bound for the Hall of Fame.

However, this series was more about depth and how the teams handled adversity due to it.

Utah struggled with injuries all season — their preferred starting five played in just 13 games together in the regular season due to injuries. That led to guys learning new roles, learning how to adapt, and play in different combinations — all things that mattered against the Clippers and in Game 7.

“It was a battle, the whole series was a battle,” Gordon Hayward said after Game 7. “Tonight was no different. It was fun out there, though. Especially competing with my teammates, with what we’ve been through this year with injuries and everything, it’s just a great win for us.”

The Clippers lost one of their big three when Blake Griffin went down with a foot injury that required surgery. Los Angeles has a top-heavy (and expensive) roster that lacked the depth to make up for it or adjust to Griffin being out.

“Not having Blake is a major wound. Obviously, you take your best scorer, your second best rebounder, your second best passer off a team,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “But give Utah credit, they won this series.”

For the Clippers, the entire series became about Chris Paul needing to do everything — and he almost did. The Jazz were aggressive defensively trying to take the ball out of CP3’s hands Sunday, and he still had 13 points and 9 assists in Game 7, he pushed his team as far as he could, but he was 1-of-7 from three and the other Clippers shooters did not step up.

“They trapped him a lot, the same thing they did last game, to be honest,” Rivers said. “We just didn’t move the ball great as a whole group. I thought CP was great overall, he got a little tired, I thought a couple guys did… we just had such a short rotation it was very difficult. But I thought they did a great job trapping and I didn’t think we did a very good job of, after CP got rid of the ball, attacking back. I thought we lost our trust a little bit, we’d catch it and throw it back to CP instead of attacking.”

Paul was blunter in his assessment of himself.

“I’ve got to be better, especially in a Game 7 like this,” Paul said.

To be fair, Paul tweaked his ankle in the third quarter, and while he played through it he was never quite the same after.

This loss leads to an interesting offseason for the Clippers where Griffin and Paul are expected to opt out of their contracts and become free agents, joining J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights, and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Clippers are expected to bring back Paul on a five-year max contract, but this loss could be the one that has management thinking it’s time for something new — does Clipper owner Steve Ballmer want to foot the luxury tax bill that would come with one of the highest payrolls in the league to run this back?

“We’ve been reading our obituary for three months,” Rivers said.

For the Jazz, it’s just another step up the ladder for an improving young team. Now they get to test themselves against the best in the league, starting Tuesday night at Oracle.