First Cup: Thursday

  • Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel: "Dwight Howard faces a one-game suspension -- his second of the season -- after picking up his 18th technical foul in the Magic's 111-102 overtime victory Wednesday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, a game unexpectedly high jacked by drama and suspense. Unless the NBA rescinds the technical, Howard will be suspended for the next game Sunday against the Chicago Bulls at Amway Center. He would be eligible to play on Monday night in Philadelphia against the 76ers. Howard became upset in the second quarter after he was called for taking more than the allotted 10 seconds to shoot a free throw -- the second time in as many nights that the rare call had been made. Howard rolled the ball in disgust, drawing the technical. He had a free throw nullified Tuesday night in Orlando against the Milwaukee Bucks for taking too much time at the line. His first crime against time came on Christmas Day against Boston. 'I was really upset about that,' Howard said. 'It hasn't been called but once throughout the whole season. I … Other guys take a lot of time at the line. You guys see what happens every night. Nothing I can do about it.' Coach Stan Van Gundy tried to tread lightly commenting about Dwight and the refs. 'They just sort of pick and choose when they're going to enforce it. Obviously, he has to quicken it up at the line,' he said."

  • Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register: "Phil Jackson’s approach is not to sweat the standings much until entering the last week of the regular season. So his plan is to take stock of things Sunday before the Lakers play host to Oklahoma City -- and then have their final games vs. San Antonio and at Sacramento -- to decide whether the team should push hard for a certain spot or home-court advantage or take it slightly easier before the playoffs. 'On Sunday, start sorting it out,' Jackson said, 'whether we stay after it, intense.' ... Jackson acknowledged Wednesday before facing the Warriors a study that said home teams in Game 7's do receive more favorable referee rulings, though. Looking at the other top teams in the West this season, Jackson had this assessment: 'Dallas is one of the better road teams in the game. They’re incredible at scoring down the stretch, and their ability to keep the game close and be able to pull it out at the end is kind of noted. San Antonio seems to play extremely well at home. They did have three losses over the season, maybe four now. They’re a very good team on their home floor. Road wins, they’re not up there at the top, but they’re still a good team on the road. There’s a number of good road teams in our conference, but still it all comes down to the seventh game: That’s a big difference whether it’s on your home floor.' "

  • Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "Ninety minutes before tipoff against the lowly Bucks, LeBron James was conducting a veritable board meeting by his locker. It was 'marketing' this and 'branding' that. 'Partnership' here and 'earnings' there. Such is life in the rapidly spinninguniverse of King James. The Heat star closed another business deal Wednesday, this one a doozy with Fenway Sports Group that will give him an undisclosed ownership stake in Liverpool FC, one of the world's richest and most popular soccer clubs. In exchange, FSG gets the international marketing rights to No. 6 in your Heat program. It was yet another reminder this franchise acquired so much more than a basketball player last summer. 'I'd love to see LeBron even kick a soccer ball,' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra joked. Later, LeBron the Ubercompetitor fired back good-naturedly. 'I can do that, too,' he said. 'I'm not as good as the guys on Liverpool, but I can do that, too.' Of course he can. In fact, I'm pretty sure you'll see him doing just that in a TV commercial fairly soon. Or at least he'll be playing a bit of 'footy' on TV screens throughout Europe and Asia, where Liverpool soccer is planning a summer tour. Good timing there."

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: "It's as predictable as Derrick Rose closing out games or Stacey King getting excited during a broadcast. Ask Tom Thibodeau if any one game has more significance than another and be prepared for a one-syllable answer. 'No,' Thibodeau said once again following Wednesday's practice. The subject, of course, is Thursday's Eastern Conference showdown against Thibodeau's former employer, the Celtics. The Bulls lead them and the Heat for the conference's top seed by three games with five to play. Even if the Bulls lose, the No. 1 seed likely will be theirs. But that's not why Thibodeau doesn't believe Thursday is a statement game. 'It's always about readiness to play,' he said. 'They're a very talented team. They're well-coached. There's not anything we're doing that they don't know. There's not anything they're doing that we don't know. It'll come down to how well each team executes. They're the defending Eastern Conference champions. Until someone knocks them off, you have to be ready to compete with them.' "

  • Scott Souza of the MetroWest Daily News: "The Celtics expect tonight's game to resemble a playoff atmosphere -- to a degree. 'It's going to be like Game 1 of a playoff series between teams trying to get to the Finals,' Jeff Green said. 'We've just got to come out, focus on the defensive end, and be sure we're ready to play.' 'Playoffs is like the main course,' Kevin Garnett said. 'This will definitely be the appetizer.' Of course, the Celtics and Bulls aren't the only teams at the table. Boston enters the game tied with the Heat for second place in the battle for homecourt advantage in a potential conference semifinals. The Celtics own the tiebreaker there too, but the teams play each other in Miami on Sunday, which gives each the chance to control its own destiny."

  • Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: "The New Orleans Hornets clinched a playoff berth Wednesday night with a come-from-behind 101-93 win over the Houston Rockets at the New Orleans Arena. Yet, with one week of regular-season games remaining, first-year coach Monty Williams would only allow himself a brief postgame smile and a satisfying fist-pump aimed toward his wife, Ingrid, and their five children sitting in the club seats behind the Hornets’ bench. 'I told our guys, ‘Don’t exhale,’ ' Williams said. 'We have more work to do.' As they have all season, the Hornets battled back from adversity Wednesday night in front of 12,728, overcoming a 17-point first-quarter deficit by outscoring Houston 80-55 in the last three quarters, taking a lead for the first time with 5:02 to go in the third, then holding off a fourth-quarter Rockets’ push for the victory."

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "The locker room was quiet. Other games were on the sets in the corners of the room, but little attention was paid. The room was just quiet enough for the Rockets to hear the commotion down the hall. The Hornets were celebrating. The Rockets sat in their small room and listened, as if paying not so much for the loss that ended their hopes but for all the losses that had pushed them to the brink long before the end. 'We just got to remember the sounds of their team making the playoffs and how happy they were,' Kevin Martin said. 'We could hear them from our locker room. That's all we have to keep in mind throughout the summer.' "

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: "The wait is finally over for the Indiana Pacers. After five years of trades, off-the-court troubles, a midseason coaching change and a long rebuilding process, the Pacers are headed back to the playoffs. The Pacers beat the Washington Wizards 136-112 and clinched a playoff berth about 25 minutes later Wednesday when Orlando defeated Charlotte. The Pacers will be the eighth seed and play Chicago or Boston in the first round. 'I am just really happy for a lot of people,' Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel said. 'For the guys in the locker room who have worked hard. For the older guys who haven't been there in a while. For the young guys who are going to get a taste of it. I am so happy for our fans. It's going to be a fun ride.' The Pacers had to wait until the end of the Charlotte-Orlando game, which went into overtime, before they could celebrate."

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: "The victory clinched the Northwest Division title, ensuring the Thunder will have home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. ... Just two seasons ago, the Thunder won only 23 games. Last season, the Thunder went 50-32. Now, the Thunder has taken another monumental march, improving its record by at least two games and its seeding by at least four spots. 'A lot of people are overlooking that,' said Kevin Durant. 'They don't know that last year we were the eighth seed. And the year before that, we weren't even thinking about the playoffs. I think every year we've gotten better…We just got to keep pressing. This is just one stop in the road for us in trying to get to the goal that we want to reach.' That's why Brooks barely mentioned the accomplishment in the locker room after the game. As Brooks put it: 'just basically in passing.' 'We're trying to get to something bigger,' Durant said."

  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: "It meant next to nothing to Gregg Popovich, but some of his players were impressed with the fact their coach now ranks second, all-time, in number of victories with one franchise. Popovich has 796 victories as Spurs coach, one more than legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Only Jerry Sloan, with 1,127 with the Jazz, has more. Acknowledging that Popovich said nothing about the milestone to his players, Hill promised to make a big deal about it the next time the Spurs gather for a practice. 'I think I should go buy a cake and come in and surprise him with a cake,' he said. 'Somebody will have to give me the real stats so I’ll know what to put on the cake.' "

  • Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News: "After refusing to enter a game five days ago, Rodney Stuckey went to his coach and said he'd play until the buzzer. In a game deemed by many as more important to lottery positioning than anything else, Stuckey emerged from his two-game punishment to lead the Pistons (27-51) to a 116-109 win over the Nets Wednesday at The Palace. He finished with 22 points and 10 assists. Stuckey's inspired effort, where he played the entire second half and made big plays down the stretch, made Pistons coach John Kuester feel vindicated about his decision to bench Stuckey. In a rare moment of candor, Kuester, who usually keeps his feelings close, explained his thought process. 'Rodney Stuckey is an integral part of this organization,' Kuester said. 'And I think it's important that messages have to be sent. If you're not going to demand, and be committed every time you step out on that court, it's not about one individual, it's about the team.' ... 'I let my emotions get in the way,' Stuckey said. "''m still a young player and I'm passionate about the game. I got punished. Whenever I'm not out there on the court with my teammates, (it's bad) because I want to be out there. I got punished, everything is good now and let's move on.' "

  • Jason Reid of The Washington Post: "An argument easily could be made that Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld should lose his job. The Wizards again have one of the NBA’s worst records. They’re headed to their third consecutive trip to the draft lottery and will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in Grunfeld’s eight-year tenure. Even Washington’s good years under Grunfeld were only so-so, his critics would contend. I get all of that. I know Grunfeld has made mistakes in leading the Wizards to this point. Still, it’s not time for a major shakeup in Washington’s basketball operation, particularly because Grunfeld has performed well recently. He has made enough of the right moves this season to warrant continued control. Grunfeld, whose contract expires after the 2012 season, has worked effectively within the confines of owner Ted Leonsis’s plan to rebuild the Wizards. He’s off to a good start in the first year of a project with no end date listed. Leonsis declined to comment about Grunfeld, saying through a spokesman he would evaluate the Wizards’ entire operation after the season. ... When judged relative to the team’s lack of success since the 1970s, what Pollin wanted and how he’s executing Leonsis’s new vision, Grunfeld has performed better than the ledger indicates. Grunfeld is doing what Leonsis asked of him. That should be good enough for now."

  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: "People can accept defeat if it's the product of an overmatched roster that nonetheless conducts itself professionally. But they will not -- should not -- tolerate child-like petulance. Nobody's angrier than Joe Dumars. This team's personality ran counter to the ethos he has long preached -- work hard, do what you're told and keep your mouth shut. Nothing offends him more than a blatant lack of professionalism. Dumars created this mess. He deserves the opportunity to clean it up with the blessings of a new ownership group committed to bringing a championship presence back to the Palace. You can't fairly grade the personnel moves of the past two years without factoring the influence of ownership instability. These Pistons are an unlikable team. The end of a shameful season can't come soon enough."

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Warriors point guard Stephen Curry is on pace to the lead the NBA in free-throw shooting and to pass Rick Barry with the franchise's best single-season percentage, but the team brass wants more. 'If you're going to lead the league in free-throw shooting, you might as well find a way to get to the line more often,' general manager Larry Riley said. Curry went into Wednesday's game shooting 93.1 percent from the foul line, which would pass Barry's 92.4 percent from 1977-78. It would also make Curry the first Warrior to lead the league since Mark Price did it in 1996-97 with a 90.6 percentage. But Curry has gotten to the line only 217 times, a far cry from the league's most-fouled point guards, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (601 free-throw attempts) and Chicago's Derrick Rose (519)."

  • Ed Miller of The Virginian-Pilot: "Measurables, after all, are not everything. But at the PIT they are becoming a bigger part of the evaluation process. For the second year, the tournament is using BAM Testing, a Seattle-based company, to provide state-of-the-art data for that is passed along primarily to NBA teams. It is a way of adding objectivity to the old, subjective eye-ball test. 'We're trying to help them correlate data,' said Brett Brungardt, a former NBA and collegiate strength and conditioning coach who is the founder of BAM. Teams can do with the numbers what they please. Some might merely glance at them, said Chris Ekstrand, a league consultant and longtime draft expert. Others might sort through data compiled over many years as a way of comparing a prospect with current players. A point guard prospect might be fast, but is he Tony Parker-fast? A forward might have a long wing-span, but is he Kevin Durant-long? While there might be no substitute for the appraising eye of a veteran scout watching a guy in the flow of a game, it's another tool in the evaluation process. At Cradock on Wednesday, the most discerning eyes were of the electronic sort. Timing devices mounted on tripods were set up throughout the gym. 'Look at this stuff,' said Ryan Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. 'It looks like something you'd use to go find a tornado.' "

  • Melinda Waldrop of the Daily Press: "As the first game of the 59th Portsmouth Invitational Tournament tipped off Wednesday night, more notable than the players on the court was the absence of several who had originally committed to attend the annual showcase for college seniors at Churchland High School. Butler forward Matt Howard, whose team lost to UConn in Monday night's NCAA championship game, withdrew with an ankle injury, and VCU forward Jamie Skeen, who injured his shoulder in a Final Four loss to Butler, also isn't playing. Others' reasons for not coming were less clear. Among those who pulled out of the tournament are Ohio State's John Diebler and David Lighty, Georgetown's Chris Wright, James Madison's Denzel Bowles, Hofstra's Charles Jenkins and Cleveland State's Norris Cole. Cory Higgins of Colorado pulled out Tuesday, and Kansas State's Jacob Pullen -- who reportedly convinced Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn to come to Portsmouth -- isn't here, either. 'I shook my head,' said Ryan Blake, director of NBA scouting. 'This is the first year that I've really gone, 'What happened?' But we've always brought in (alternate) guys late that have done well.' Blake believes players who aren't likely be drafted in the NBA's two rounds get bad advice from agents intent on signing them."

  • Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee: "What could be the last Kings game in Sacramento is approaching a sellout. The team announced Wednesday that fewer than 500 tickets remain for the game against the Lakers April 13. Citing 'overwhelming demand,' the Kings said they are releasing a limited number of standing room tickets, including space for fans interesting on watching on TV in the East Lounge or Cantina Lounge on the fourth floor of Power Balance Pavilion. The game is Fan Appreciation Night -- ironic in light of the team's likely move to Anaheim after the season ends. The Maloof family, which owns the Kings, has until April 18 to decide whether to ask the NBA for permission to relocate."

  • Lacy J. Banks of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Now it’s Scottie Pippen’s turn to be honored with a sculpted memorial. At halftime of tonight’s Eastern Conference showdown against the Boston Celtics at the United Center, the Bulls will unveil a bronze bust of the Hall of Fame forward. 'It’s so great the way the Bulls have shown appreciation to players who achieved so much for them down through the years,' Pippen said. 'This is the greatest honor I could receive from my [17-year] NBA career.' "

  • Ray Richardson of the Pioneer Press: "Timberwolves center Darko Milicic is offering his 2004 NBA championship ring and an all-expenses paid trip to a 2011 NBA Finals game in a raffle to raise money for children with life-threatening diseases in his native Serbia, the Wolves announced Wednesday. Milicic, 25, was a rookie with the Detroit Pistons when the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title. He said the ring is worth 'about $30,000.' 'It costs about $35,000 for each kid to get the treatment they need,' Milicic said. 'I want to raise as much money as I can to help as many kids as we can. It won't be tough to give up the ring, especially when it means helping save a kid's life.' Proceeds for the campaign, initiated by Milicic and his wife, Zorana, will go toward Serbian hospitals conducting medical research on Batten disease, a fatal disorder that affects young children. Milicic and Zorana learned of Batten after reading a story about it in a Serbian newspaper last summer."

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: "Stu Lantz is staying. The longtime color commentator for televised Lakers games is expected to return for a 25th season, multiple NBA and entertainment officials said Wednesday. Lantz's broadcast partner since 2005, Joel Meyers, will not be back after this season. Meyers will be done after the first round of the playoffs. Neither FS West nor KCAL has broadcast rights past that point. Spero Dedes, 32, will be the third TV voice of the Lakers since Chick Hearn died in August 2002. Paul Sunderland had the job for three seasons, followed by Meyers. Dedes is in his sixth season as the Lakers' radio play-by-play broadcaster. Dedes has not officially signed a new contract with the Lakers to do TV, though it is not expected to be an arduous process."