By: Rob Bishop
Back again, and before diving into the weekend’s NBA action, a borderline shocking development occurred off the court as coach Kenny Atkinson and the Brooklyn Nets parted ways. The move was said to be mutual, but it is far to easy to figure out the story here as rumors are already surfacing regarding a Kyrie Irving-approved replacement—former Cavs coach Ty Lue. Atkinson has proven to be a strong coach, molding an interesting collection of pieces into a playoff team last season before having the team-first culture uprooted following the signings of Irving and Kevin Durant. Provided he has interest, Atkinson won’t be without a job for long.
In a battle between the two favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers bested the Los Angeles Clippers. Following losses on opening night and Christmas Day to the Clippers, the Lakers needed a win to a make a statement. Behind another MVP-level showing from LeBron James—somehow, he is closing in on the assumed repeat win of Giannis Antetokounmpo—the Lakers locked up a playoff spot and barring an epic collapse, the top-seed in the West. James had 28 points and nine dimes, Anthony Davis scored 30, and guard Avery Bradley scored 24 and played some incredible on-ball perimeter defense.
Utah ran its winning streak to five games on Saturday with a win over the Detroit Pistons, an excellent conclusion to a back-to-back that also featured a win over the Celtics on Friday. The Jazz continue to be a streaky team, but when the team’s defense is clicking, Utah is capable of winning against any team in the NBA. Rudy Gobert remains the driving force of the Jazz, and as long as he remains at the top of his game following a rare funk in January and early February, the Jazz can challenge the two L.A. teams. Up next for the Jazz is a showdown against the Toronto Raptors tonight, followed by a potential first-round playoff preview against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.
With the winning streak, Utah has moved to within a game of the Denver Nuggets in the standings. On Saturday, Denver did little to slow Utah’s charge as the Nuggets lost to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. It was an awful showing for Denver, and it will serve as fuel for the team’s critics. Despite the Nuggets place in the standings, Denver is often an afterthought when discussing legitimate championship contenders. Saturday’s inexcusable dud won’t quiet any doubts.
Another unforgiveable showing from Saturday saw the Philadelphia 76ers fall to the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors. Curry missed the game due to illness, shuffling the offensive load back onto the likes of Damion Lee, Eric Paschall, and Mychal Mulder. The 76ers are riddled with injuries, but losing to the Curry-less Warriors cannot happen. The 76ers exit the weekend with a laughable 10-24 mark on the road for the season, and Philadelphia enters the week sitting in sixth place in the East. Philadelphia entered the season as title contenders. At this pace, the 76ers will be fortunate to make the second round.
Keeping the trend going, the Houston Rockets lost a fourth straight game on Sunday, falling to the Orlando Magic by 20 points at home. Houston won six in a row prior to the losing streak, but any goodwill generated by the spat of winning is long gone. Making this worse is that two of Houston’s losses have come against the sinking New York Knicks and the struggling Charlotte Hornets. A team with championship aspirations should not be losing to those two teams. Houston’s team defense has fallen apart as teams are finally capitalizing on the Rockets’ lack of size. Now, it will be up to the Rockets to either adapt or face another crushingly disappointing playoff showing.