First Cup: Tuesday

  • Jeff Caplan of ESPNDallas.com: "Who needs centers? The Dallas Mavericks have played two games now without a true center and they've scored 247 points. Monday night saw Shawn Marion score a season-high 29 points to lead Dallas to its 12th consecutive victory. Talk about stepping up, Marion is averaging 19.0 points and eight rebounds in the last four games. The Mavs need one more win to tie the Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest win streak of the season. Think it can't get any easier than Monday in Minneapolis? The Mavs come home Wednesday to play the seven-win New Jersey Nets. So, it must get tougher after that, right? Hmm. On Saturday the New York Knicks are in town. The last time the Mavs saw the Knickerbockers, they drilled them by 50 at Madison Square Garden -- without Jason Kidd. "

  • Brian Windhorst of The Plain Dealer: "LeBron James' ankle is fine. You should have seen him dash across the room to see the finish of the Knicks-Hawks game in the locker room after the game. ... In this game of analyzing and then spinning everything LeBron within the free agency prism -- 'What? He ordered a vodka tonic? Does that mean the Nets are still in the game?' -- I'm sure that will get all whipped into something. I probably shouldn't even be writing it because I'll be getting calls from New York radio stations for 'my take' tomorrow. But I did write about it because, well, LeBron is moving just fine on that ankle. And to pass along how it is always interesting to watch games with LeBron. Like when he's on the court, he usually sees things before they happen even on TV. He'll predict when players will go for backdoor lobs or scold players for not forcing the opponent into help or to his weak hand. You can really tell he watches a lot of film...on everybody. For that matter, he also reads a lot about the game. He's very up on the happenings in the league. In this case, he was enjoying the finish of a good game."

  • Jonathan Abrams of The New York Times: "Hawks guard Jamal Crawford is preparing to finally shed the N.B.A.’sscarlet letter. Crawford, an adept scorer who causes few locker-room problems, seems to be an unlikely person to hold the league’s longest current streak of playing in the most games without appearing in the playoffs. But he holds it nonetheless. His streak reached 659 games Monday night against the Knicks. It will come to a finish at the end of this season at 679 games when the Hawks get ready for the playoffs. They are comfortably in second place in the Southeast Division and a near lock for home-court advantage in the first round. 'I always said the thing that bothered me most about it was I actually hadn’t experienced the big games in front of the crowd like that,' Crawford said. 'I just think on that stage, I’m at my best.' Now he can finally find out if his assumption is true. He was averaging 17.4 points off the bench for Atlanta and is a front-runner to win the league’s Sixth Man Award. The satisfaction comes after starting his career with the post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, then spending a little more than four seasons with the hapless Knicks."

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: "Stakes make for drama. And for maybe the first time in their history, the Charlotte Bobcats have some emphatic stakes Tuesday night against the Miami Heat. If the Bobcats beat the Heat tonight, they would clinch a tiebreaker against Miami. That would amount to a polite, 'Oh, really?' if not for the fact the Bobcats are in actual playoff contention this season and the Heat and the Chicago Bulls are their best targets to leap-frog from their current ninth place in the Eastern Conference. 'It definitely adds to the stakes,' Bobcat Stephen Jackson said Monday. 'You have to approach this like a playoff game. It's a mandatory win. If we approach it like the Lakers game, we should be all right, but we've got to understand where we are in the standings and what this game means to us.' "

  • Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: "Kobe Bryant described the Lakers as 'upset' and 'a little edgy,' supporting his descriptors with a series of curt answers to reporters' questions. Asked if he was feeling better a day after stomach issues forced him to miss the team bus to Amway Arena in Orlando, Bryant said, 'I'm getting a stomach virus now with all these questions.' The Lakers all seemed a bit queasy after losing three consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 23-27, 2008. Coach Phil Jackson lamented his team's lack of execution, and forward Pau Gasol said the Lakers needed to improve their ball movement. Gasol had not previously experienced a losing streak this long since joining the Lakers in February 2008, but he said their recent defeats weren't as vexing as the defending NBA champions' inability to play to their potential. 'That's what's disappointing and frustrating,' Gasol said. 'That's why I want us to get ourselves going and playing well and being confident and having that swagger of the best team in the league, and lately we haven't been carrying that with us.' "

  • Brian Kamenetzky of ESPNLosAngeles.com: "Ron Artest arrived at Lakers practice Monday afternoon with shorn-yet-still-colorful head. Lesson one, kids: Purple dye doesn't just wash right out. While I certainly appreciate Artest's follicular whimsy, I have to admit, as a bald man there are times I find his cavalier attitude towards his hair a little offensive. 'Look what I can do! Whatever, it's just hair. It'll grow back.' Not forever, Ron. Not forever."

  • Frank Zicarelli of the Toronto Sun: "The team that takes to the court Tuesday night against the visiting Raptors is one that has been scrutinized more times than Bryant heaved shots during the Lakers’ three-game losing streak, all setbacks on the road in rather dramatic and odd fashion. Despite the recent tumult, the Lakers still are the team to beat in the West because of Bryant’s presence and his assassin-like personality. They still are the champs, basketball’s measuring stick and the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs, or at least avoid until the stakes at their highest. But the aura that usually surrounds the Lakers has been punctured. What no one knows is whether this air of fallibility is fleeting or whether the remnants of a three-game slide will linger into the spring. What is for certain is that the Lakers are not accustomed to losing games in succession."

  • Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: "Who would have thunk? The Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted the Bucks would win 26 games this season, and Sports Illustrated forecast the Bucks being the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Kudos to John Hammond. The Bucks general manager drafted Brandon Jennings after several other teams in need of a point guard passed on him; he lured Ersan Ilyasova from Europe; he signed veteran Jerry Stackhouse when virtually nobody else wanted to take him out of the unemployment line and he pulled off a heist by obtaining shooting guard John Salmons from the Chicago Bulls at the Feb. 18 trading deadline. If there's a more qualified candidate than Hammond for NBA Executive of the Year, I'd like to know who it is."

  • Jim O'Donnell of the Chicago Sun-Times: "The Bulls, besieged once again by injuries, appear headed only for the spotty uncertainties of April. They're 4-5 since John Salmons departed and take a four-game losing streak into a United Center date tonight against the Utah Jazz. 'I wish no one down there any bad,' Salmons said. 'We all went through too much together last spring against Boston. I consider just about everyone on that team a good friend. I do want to finish ahead of them, though.' The Bucks -- once 18-25 -- have leapfrogged to the fifth-best record (32-29) in the Eastern Conference. That puts them up on the No. 6 Toronto Raptors via tiebreaker (32-29), the No. 7 Miami Heat (32-31) and the Bulls (31-31). The 6-6 Salmons has glided in. He has bumped Charlie Bell as a starter and further eased concerns about the absence of top gun Michael Redd, whose season ended Jan. 10 with a torn-up left knee. Despite playing his first seven games with only one full practice, Salmons is averaging 19.2 points, adding length and smarts to a backcourt starring rookie Brandon Jennings and doing nothing to diminish the growing confidence of his new team."

  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "For most of the season, when it came to playoff seeding, the view regarding the Heat was, 'whatever.' The sense was it did not make much of a difference whether the Heat faces the Cavaliers, Magic, Celtics or Hawks in the first round. It would be one-and-done once again, and then everyone collectively would hold their breath until Dwyane Wade made his free-agent decision. And then came Saturday’s game against the Hawks, a third victory by the Heat in the four-game season series. The Heat has now won 15 of the last 17 regular-season meetings at AmericanAirlines Arena. No, there won’t be homecourt in a potential first-round series against the Hawks, but there will be three home games if the series goes the distance. Beyond that, the Heat held the Hawks to 39-percent shooting in the four-game season series. That’s what makes Tuesday’s game in Charlotte so crucial, as well as Friday’s home game against the Bulls and games later this month against the Bobcats, Bulls, Bucks and Raptors."

  • Dan Bickley of The Arizona Republic: "For much of his rookie season, Robin Lopez was an object of scorn, the recipient of misdirected frustration. He was mocked for his funny-sounding voice, for his love of comic books. He was a first-round draft pick that wowed nobody and thus became the symbol of Steve Kerr's perceived incompetence. Now, Lopez is proof that the general manager most certainly has a clue, and that the Suns might have a future. 'Defensively, the difference in our team has been unbelievable,' coach Alvin Gentry said. Since being inserted into the starting lineup Jan. 18, the Suns are 16-8, and 14-4 in their past 18 games. Since the All-Star break, the Suns have held five of 12 opponents to fewer than 100 points. During that stretch, Lopez poured in 30 points against the Clippers and promptly messaged his brother, Brook, who plays for the Nets. 'Until I score 33, he still has the family record for most points in a NBA game,' Lopez said. With Lopez on the bench, the Suns were outrebounded in 25 of their first 41 games. Since the change, they have won or tied the rebounding battle in 19 of 24 games. Now, a soft-serve franchise suddenly is besting its opponents by an average of 4.4 rebounds per game. But this isn't about numbers. Simply put, Lopez has changed the personality of this basketball team."

  • Mike Baldwin of The Oklahoman: "Get one of your friends. Stand still. Then let your friend get a five-step running start and plow into you. Remember, you can’t flinch. You can’t move. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? Thunder forward Nick Collison leads the NBA in taking charging fouls. It’s not a play listed in box scores, but it’s a play valued by teammates and coaches. 'It looks like it doesn’t hurt,' said coach Scott Brooks. 'It looks like you can just get up and go. But it hurts. Even if a point guard comes at you full speed, knee-to-chest, it hurts. Tough guys come up and take them. And you don’t ever want to show your opponent you’re hurting.' ... Kevin Durant said he once injured his knee in high school, which made him hesitant for several weeks to jump in front of an on-charging opponent. His rookie season in Seattle, he once hit his head falling backward. Another time, he injured his elbow when he landed hard. 'It’s something that’s not easy to do,' Durant said. 'It’s all about being tough, and that’s what Nick is. He’s gifted. He has a nice body to take that pounding.' "

  • Sam Amick of The Sacramento Bee: "In the weeks leading up to All-Star Weekend in Dallas in mid-February, the Kings grew concerned at the constant demand for Omri Casspi's time that has come with his historical place as Israel's first NBA player. The sometimes-harrowing hype reached a new high Feb. 9 at Madison Square Garden, with Casspi scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds against New York in a win that came in front of thousands of Jewish supporters. His participation in the Rookie-Sophomore game in Dallas opened him up to a weekend full of All-Star events, with Casspi handling himself graciously as always but surely feeling the fatigue. Yet he continued to play well, averaging 15 points and shooting 48.6 percent in the three games after the break. The downturn began Feb. 21 in Phoenix; Casspi has averaged 6.5 points in his seven games since while shooting 38 percent (19 of 50) and 20 percent from three-point range (2 of 10). 'Maybe I practiced too hard in the beginning,' Casspi said. 'In the first three months, I didn't take a day off at all. I'd come to lift (weights) when we had days off. Maybe practices I should rest a little bit. … That's something to learn for the future. I didn't know how to practice for 82 games.' "

  • Bill Bradley of The Sacramento Bee: "In two years, Tournament Week and the NCAA Tournament will be even better. You can thank the NBA for that. The NBA is talking lockout for the beginning of the 2011-12 season. The collective bargaining agreement with the National Basketball Players Association runs out before that season, and NBA players are already making contingencies for life without pro basketball. College players should be, too. That's because -- if they are smart -- fewer college players will be leaving school early for the NBA. Why would they jump to the pros if the likelihood is there will be no games to play? If more great players stay in school, then the quality of the college game will improve, at least for two seasons. Conversely, there will probably be a glut of talent in the 2012 NBA draft once the league settles its labor issues. Until then, expect the performance level in the 2011-12 college basketball season to be more like the game used to be."