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

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”