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NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

Igor Kokoskov joins unfortunate ranks of head coaches fired after first NBA season

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Igor Kokoskov worked 18 years as an NBA assistant coach. The Serbia native worked tirelessly to convince teams he was more than just a mentor for European players. Finally, the Suns hired him as their head coach.

“It’s a dream job,” Kokoskov beamed. “And it’s a special day for me.”

Less than a year later, Phoenix fired him.

What a tough business.

The Suns gave Kokoskov a roster ill-equipped to win. They were comically thin at point guard. They had one of the NBA’s least-experienced teams. Even rising star Devin Booker still has significant flaws that inhibit his ability to win. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler appeared apathetic in Phoenix.

And now Kokoskov will pay the price for the Suns’ 19-win season.

His time as an NBA head coach is over already, and he might not get another opportunity. Kokoskov is the first coach to get fired after his first season as an NBA head coach since Mike Dunlap with Charlotte in 2013.

Here’s every coach to get fired after only one season, or less, of his first head-coaching job since the NBA-ABA merger. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following year.

Season Tm Coach W L Future jobs
2018-19 PHO Igor Kokoskov 19 63
2012-13 CHA Mike Dunlap 21 61
2010-11 GSW Keith Smart 36 46 SAC
2008-09 DET Michael Curry 39 43
2007-08 CHA Sam Vincent 32 50
2003-04 PHI Randy Ayers 21 31
2003-04 TOR Kevin O’Neill 33 49
2000-01 WAS Leonard Hamilton 19 63
1999-00 WAS Gar Heard 14 30
1999 DEN Mike D’Antoni 14 36 PHO, NYK, LAL, HOU
1997-98 DEN Bill Hanzlik 11 71
1996-97 PHI Johnny Davis 22 60 ORL
1995-96 TOR Brendan Malone 21 61
1993-94 DAL Quinn Buckner 13 69
1992-93 SAS Jerry Tarkanian 9 11
1987-88 PHO John Wetzel 28 54
1983-84 SAS Morris McHone 11 20
1980-81 CLE Bill Musselman 25 46 MIN
1979-80 LAL Jack McKinney 10 4 IND, KCK
1977-78 SEA Bob Hopkins 5 17
1976-77 BUF Tates Locke 16 30

Of the 21 coaches fired in or following their first season as an NBA head coach, only five – Keith Smart, Mike D’Antoni, Johnny Davis, Bill Musselman and Jack McKinney – got another head-coaching job. Kokoskov faces long odds.

At least he got to finish the season. Phoenix had a late 5-2 stretch that included wins over the Bucks and Warriors. That could be a selling point for Kokoskov.

Randy Ayers (2003-04 76ers), Gar Heard (1999-00 Wizards), Jerry Tarkanian (1992-93 Spurs), Morris McHone (1983-84 Spurs), Bill Musselman (1980-81 Cavaliers), Bob Hopkins (1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics) and Tates Locke (1976-77 Buffalo Braves) all got fired during their first seasons as NBA head coaches. Jack McKinney (1979-80 Lakers) lost his job due to a bicycle crash during the season, and Los Angeles officially fired him after the season to keep Paul Westhead, who guided the team to a title in McKinney’s absence.

The Suns weren’t necessarily wrong to fire Kokoskov. Under his watch, they were sloppy and undisciplined and had chemistry problems – areas where the head coach usually gets credit or blame. General manager James Jones deserves a chance to hire his own coach.

Kokoskov might be a good coach. Even if he’s not, he could grow into one.

But he didn’t do enough to secure his job, as tall as that task might have been.

The above list is filled with coaches who had awful records. McKinney is the only one with a winning record, and his situation was complicated by the bike crash. Michael Curry (2008-09 Pistons) is only first-time head coach to take his team to the playoffs and still get fired since the merger, but Detroit had a losing record and got swept in the first round.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate Kokoskov didn’t get a better chance to prove himself. His job security took a major hit when the Suns fired the general manager, Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov before the coach’s first season even began. Kokoskov survived rumors of a potential firing in February, but that was clearly only a stay of execution.

The Suns’ problems go way above the head coach, and Kokoskov’s experience in Phoenix could dissuade potential candidates from replacing him.

But there are only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs. Except for the most-coveted candidates, many coaches would rush to take this job.

As precarious as it can be.

Blake Griffin joined in on the “refs you suck” chant in Detroit

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The Pistons didn’t get swept by the Bucks because of the officiating, but the calls did frustrate Detroit and their fans throughout the series. (Good luck finding a fan base that doesn’t believe the officials have it in for them.)

During the Pistons’ Game 4 loss, frustrated fans started a “refs you suck” chant that reverberated throughout the arena. Blake Griffin got in on the act, quietly joining in with the chants.

Griffin continued to express his frustration with how the game was officiated from the podium after the game.

Griffin missed the first two games of the series, then tried to play through a knee issue the last two, wearing a bulky brace the entire time. Griffin made plays and the Pistons looked better, but it was never going to be enough. When his pain caught up with him and Griffin was taken out of the game in the fourth, Pistons fans gave him a standing ovation.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Donovan Mitchell, Utah will not go quietly

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Donovan Mitchell, Utah bounce back from Game 3 meltdown to beat Rockets, extend series. There’s a “what if” factor to Utah’s win on Monday night that might be hard for Jazz fans to ignore: What if the Utah Jazz had won Game 3 on Saturday when James Harden had a rough night shooting? What if Donovan Mitchell hadn’t melted down late in that game?

Jazz fans should not fall for that temptation and instead should savor what was a brilliant Game 4 win at home. The kind of game a team with real pride plays, the type of game where they played with the desperation needed in the postseason. A game where the Jazz were the aggressors from the opening tip, and a game where Mitchell scored 19 of his 31 in the fourth to spark a 107-91 win.

Mitchell had some help when he wasn’t red hot. Jae Crowder finished with 23 points and had 14 of those in the first quarter, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists. Those two served as the secondary playmakers Utah often needs (but doesn’t consistently get) to balance out what Mitchell can do.

The Jazz defended better, too. Sure, James Harden had 30 points on 19 shots and got his. Chris Paul had 23 points and played well, also. However, all the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night, then while Mitchell was going off in the fourth quarter the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

Houston was motivated to get the win, they could have packed some extra rest in the schedule while Golden State keeps playing. The Jazz were more motivated, more desperate, and there will be a Game 5. The Jazz are not going to win this series, and they can break it all down when it’s over, but for now they played with pride, and because of that will get to play another day.

2) Milwaukee sweeps Detroit out of playoffs, now real test comes for Bucks. The last time the Milwaukee Bucks won a playoff series, “All For You” by Janet Jackson was on everybody’s radio and we were going to the theater to see “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Driven” (and then regretting it).

That was 2001, but the Bucks swept into the second round on Monday night behind 41 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, beating the Pistons 127-104.

Detroit played hard and was frustrated at points, but this series was not about the officiating. One team was better than the other. Blake Griffin did what he could and played through a leg injury that should have sidelined him — and Pistons fans recognized that and the season he had with a standing ovation.

The Bucks move on and will face the Boston Celtics in the next round (dates and times have yet to be announced for the series, but a smart bet would be a start next weekend). This will be a challenging matchup for Milwaukee — if Al Horford is playing well, hitting jumpers and stretching the floor, it will start to pull Brook Lopez out of the paint and challenge the Bucks’ defensive system. Kyrie Irving will be tough for Eric Bledsoe to contain, but Antetokounmpo and company will be a challenge for the Celtics. These teams went seven games in the playoffs a season ago (Boston winning), both teams are better this time around, and both have a lot to prove. Things are about to get very interesting in the East.

3) The Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov, the only stable thing in Phoenix is the Suns’ instability. The Phoenix Suns will hire a new coach in the coming weeks, and whoever it is will enter the revolving door — the next coach will be the Suns’ seventh in the last eight years.

The Suns fired coach Igor Kokoskov on Monday night after one season. A season where the first-time head coach was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader. The roster was doomed to fail, and it’s no surprise they started 4-18. But the Suns improved. Kelly Oubre Jr. was added to the roster, Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement and played well for stretches near the end of the season. There was something to build on.

Or not.

The Suns reportedly want to go hard at Sixers assistant coach Monty Williams for their head job. Williams will have a second interview with the Lakers next week, so the Suns are playing catchup. Remember that the Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations, and in case you didn’t know Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job (hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there). We’ll see if that moves the Suns to the front of the line.

However, this firing just continues the pattern of instability and a lack of top-down vision for the Suns, which starts with meddling owner Robert Sarver. Williams, or any coach with good options, may want to think twice about stepping into the revolving coaching door in Phoenix.

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

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This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.