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

Chris Paul injures right hamstring, status unclear for Game 6 vs. Warriors

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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.

After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.

But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.

The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.

That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.

As expected, Chris Paul said he will be good to go (players are the worst at providing a timeline for their injuries).

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.

Chris Paul plays the hero as Warriors devolve to iso ball in Game 5 loss

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I personally thought a Western Conference Finals game couldn’t get any uglier after I watched Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday night’s Game 5 matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors two teams produced three heinous quarters of NBA playoff basketball, made even more unbearable by the fact that we know how good these two teams can be when they’re really humming.

Much as it was in Game 4 it was Houston’s defense that was on display, ironically forcing the Warriors to play much in the way the Rockets do when they lose. Golden State battled the shot clock with isolation ball much of the game, with Kevin Durant getting the ball at the top of the arc as some of the league’s top players — including a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry — widened the floor in a 1-4 flat set for the 7-foot wing.

To their credit, both Curry and Durant were in good shooting form through the first half but as the periods ground on they started to slow. Draymond Green was Draymond-y, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds with four assists. Statistically, it’s hard to understand how the Warriors lost. Golden State shot better from the field, from the arc, and from the charity stripe. But their scoring was concentrated and their offense predictable at just the wrong moments.

Houston’s attack was nothing to shake a stick at, either. James Harden‘s scored just 19 points on 5-of-21 shooting, and as a unit the Rockets doled out 12 assists. Incessant switching and a tendency to hound the ball on defense allowed Houston to force a whopping 18 turnovers from Golden State. It was the most important statistic of the game for the Rockets, who scored 18 points on those turnovers despite being outpaced in 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and in fastbreak buckets.

Then, the fourth quarter happened. Everything changed, and as we are wont to do, the game felt much cleaner. Both teams had their energy up, they traded baskets, and the lead went back-and-forth.

Enter Chris Paul.

Houston’s point guard was the savior, scoring 20 points on a piddly 6-of-19 shooting performance. But Paul’s box score did not tell the tale of his impact on the game. Several times with the shot clock winding down, Paul came up with big beyond-the-arc buckets, at one point hitting one over Curry, giving him back a shoulder shimmy much the way the Warriors point guard did in Game 4.

Paul’s leadership pushed Houston forward, but his commitment during Game 5 might get overlooked after the Rockets point guard was forced to check out of the game after a play with 51 seconds remaining. On a floater in the lane, Paul appeared to hurt his right hamstring. Unable to play, Paul had to watch the final minute from the Houston bench, and his availability for Game 6 is currently up in the air.

It was ugly and it was gritty, but the Rockets beat Golden State on Thursday night, 98-94, to take Game 5 and a 3-2 series win as the Western Conference Finals heads back to Oakland.

Now, we look toward Game 6 in California on Saturday, May 26 at 6:00 PM PST.

Eric Gordon buckets, Draymond Green turnover seals game for Rockets

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For the second game in a row, the Houston Rockets were clutch in the fourth quarter and the defending champion Warriors clanked and fumbled their way to a loss.

Houston won Game 3 98-94 because down the stretch Eric Gordon made plays (and free throws) and Draymond Green fumbled away the Warriors chance.

It started with the Rockets up one with less than two minutes to go, when Eric Gordon — who led the Rockets with 24 points — drained a three that gave Houston some breathing room.

Six seconds later, Draymond Green answered with a three to keep it a one-point game.

With 10 seconds left in the game, a Trevor Ariza free throw made it a two-point game, giving the Warriors a chance to come down and tie or win. Then Green did this.

Gordon was fouled, hit two free throws, and it was ballgame.

The Rockets are now up 3-2 in the series and are one win away from the Finals.

Draymond Green thought Warriors might trade him after fight with Steve Kerr

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Draymond Green is the backbone of the Golden State Warriors, not just because he was the 2016-17 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Green sort of does it all, including passing, scoring, rebounding, and myriad other scrap work that doesn’t show up on regular box scores.

But there was some doubt in Green’s mind in 2016 that he would stay with the team. Green was involved in an argument during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and after things settled down the Warriors big man was concerned the team might trade him.

The thought of doing so is sort of ridiculous, but apparently that was something that flashed into Green’s mind given the tenseness of the situation between he and Kerr.

Via Bleacher Report:

But Green’s mood was still foul, and he left the arena that day believing his days as a Warrior were numbered. He feared the relationship had been fractured, that the Warriors would choose Kerr over him. That he’d be traded.

“One hundred percent,” Green tells B/R. “Especially with the success that he was having as a coach. Like, you just don’t get rid of that.”

The thing that makes Golden State great isn’t just the players, or the system, or Kerr. It’s the human resources management aspect of their organization that allows them to compete on the court in the way they do.

It’s not crazy to think that a player could be shipped out of town thanks to a disagreement with a coach, although the leverage players have these days likely has put a stop to that realistically happening. But that Kerr, Green, and management were able to get things back under control that season was to the benefit of everyone involved.