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First Cup: Friday

  • Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: "This series gave Kobe Bryant his chip again, the star beginning it by losing a fight with a courtside chair but ending it by slugging Emeka Okafor. This series gave Pau Gasol his temper again, as he was ripped by his coach for being timid early, then embraced by everyone Thursday after a driving dunk attempt that knocked two Hornets into next season. This series gave Andrew Bynum a first step again, as he stood strong enough to finish Thursday with 18 points and 12 rebounds and even a 15-foot jumper that will make future opponents wince. Breaths still need to be held until Bynum can prove his knees will survive through the middle of June, but there is at least reason for the slightest of exhale. It was a six-game series that felt like a six-round preliminary bout that, in the end, felt just perfect. 'This is the way it has happened for us in the last few years, and it seems to work,' Derek Fisher said. 'You would like to sweep the early rounds, but if you don't, they help you develop that thick skin, that mentality that you will need for the rest of the playoffs.' The thickest of that skin, of course, belongs to Artest, who turned the corner on a listless regular season to become this series' MVP. It was Artest who fueled the Lakers' renewal after their Game 1 loss with a plea to the team to 'go loco,' and it was Artest who threw the final punch Thursday when he turned Chris Paul into CP3-ohhhh. It happened in the final 25 seconds of the third quarter, the Lakers leading by eight, Artest finding himself guarding Paul underneath the Lakers basket. Paul seemed to slip on the baseline, at which point Artest shoved him out of bounds and stole the ball and laid it in. The New Orleans Arena crowd, which had seemed small and quiet for most of the game, roared in disapproval while Artest, naturally, roared back. For the first time in several games, he flexed his biceps with his trademark strong-man pose."

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: "The Lakers begin the next round Monday at home against Dallas, an inviting matchup for the Lakers, who have won 10 of their last 13 games against the Mavericks and went 2-1 against them this season. It's also good for history. Surprisingly, the Lakers and Mavericks haven't seen each other in the playoffs since the 1988 West finals, won by the Lakers in seven games. Cue up the old videotape of Magic Johnson on Derek Harper, James Worthy on Mark Aguirre, the Fabulous Forum and Reunion Arena. For now, the Lakers are happily past the Hornets. Or, as the white board in the Lakers' locker room said after the game: 12 mo' A dozen victories separate the Lakers from a third consecutive championship. To get there, they'll have to show the same blend on both sides of the ball they had Thursday."

  • Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: "In five previous games against the Lakers, the uncontested 3-point attempt New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul lined up with 9:12 remaining in the fourth quarter Thursday night would have found the bottom of the net. Not this one. Paul’s 25-foot jumper bounced rudely off the right side of rim, into the waiting hands of Lakers reserve guard Shannon Brown, another miss on a night when this playoff series’Superman couldn’t find his way completely out of the phone booth. Paul’s uncharacteristic off shooting night -- he took just nine shots, making four -- coupled with the Lakers’ rediscovered killer instinct helped Los Angeles close out the Hornets 98-80, winning the best-of-seven series 4-2 in front of 17,949 at the New Orleans Arena. ... Much of the problem Thursday night, Paul said, was the defense played on him by Lakers point guard Derek Fisher and Los Angeles’ lane-jamming front line that took away his ability to penetrate. 'They did a really good job of closing the lane down,' Paul said, 'and I think a lot of credit goes to Derek Fisher. I told him after the game, unbelievable defense he played the entire series. D-Fish gets up on one side and while you can drive by him, you’ve got the twin towers (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol) down there waiting on you. They use that length to their advantage. I still tried to find my spots, but the lane was packed. And D-Fish was in my pocket all night long. The only way you can get guys off of you is to try to play physical. I tried that early in the game and got an offensive foul.' Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, however, wasn’t giving his team much credit for anything they managed to do on Paul during the series. 'He’s tired,” said Bryant, who led all scorers with 24 points. 'We didn’t do anything. He looked a little tired. It wasn’t anything we did defensively. We tried to crowd him ... but that little sucker is tough.' "

  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: "For the Mavericks, one epic meltdown at the Rose Garden was enough. Having clearly learned from their fourth-quarter flop five days earlier, they stayed the course Thursday night, figuring out how to defend the Portland Trail Blazers late in a close game and putting a message-sending end to a first-round playoff series that was rugged from start to finish. The message: the Los Angeles Lakers should expect a battle-toughened, strong-willed bunch of Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. They put together their best game of the series to close out the Portland Trail Blazers with a 103-96 victory that finished off a 4-2 series win, just the second time in five years the Mavericks have escaped the first round. It was a gratifying win, and the first time in the series that the road team broke through for a victory. The Mavericks fell behind early by a dozen points, went ahead by 17, then held on for dear life. In the end, it was their defense that stopped the Blazers twice on key possessions when the outcome was still in doubt in the final moments."

  • Greg Jayne of The Columbian: "I would like to write about ... CLANK! ... how the Trail Blazers used their grit and guile to force a Game 7 in their playoff series against Dallas. About how they ... DOINK! ... gave themselves a puncher’s chance to reach the second round. About how they ... D’OH! ... kept their season alive with a stirring victory Thursday in the Rose Garden. Except that none of those things happened ... BRICK! So as the Blazers ponder how their season ended ignominiously with a 103-96 Game 6 loss, as they consider their 4-2 series defeat, as they dwell on the fact that the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series in 11 years ... they can curse Dr. Naismith for not making the basket bigger. Facing elimination and the prospect of wasting their glorious Game 4 comeback victory, the Blazers spent Thursday sending miss after miss toward the hoop. Oh, it’s not that the percentages were that bad. For the game, Portland shot 44 percent from the field -- not good, but not insurmountable, despite a 5-for-21 performance from 3-point range. The problem was the type of misses. They came on plays when somebody would penetrate and kick the ball back out. On plays when the Blazers would corral a long rebound. On plays when somebody would have a wide-open 3-pointer and the fans would start to inch out of their seats, only to slump back down. ... Changes have to be made. No longer are the Blazers a young-and-growing team; they’re a veteran club with a 37-year-old, a 35-year-old, and a 28-year-old in the starting lineup. No longer are they a deep team; they got 14 points from the bench in Game 6. No longer can they build the franchise around Brandon Roy; despite his Game 4 heroics, he is a role player at best. Despite that, the Blazers had a shot to extend the series Thursday. They missed."

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "They’d been the better team through four games, and then they lost Game 5 and folks started talking about how lousy they were. An Orlando Sentinel columnist called them the Birdbrains, which sounded a bit strange: If the Hawks were such plods, why were they still leading? The same scribe predicted the Magic, having won one game in a row, would outsmart the Hawks and win the series. And maybe if this were 'Jeopardy' they would have. But this is basketball, and at last check MIT hasn’t been to the Final Four lately. And Orlando won’t be going to Round 2 of these NBA playoffs. The Atlanta Birdbrains will. No, they don’t always appear to know what they’re doing, and there are times when they don’t appear to care. But in this series we saw the tenacity that was missing during the regular season. Yes, they were lucky in that they drew the one decent team they’d proved they could beat, but they took their break and ran with it. They beat the Magic three times in one-possession games, which says much about their resourcefulness, and Thursday’s clincher came down to one tiny-but-gigantic play, a play we can only call … well, smart. ... Maybe they’re not the smartest kids in the class, but they can play a little basketball. And now we get to witness a rare bit of migration. We get to watch these Birdbrains fly north for Round 2."

  • Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The Hawks had printouts of a column by the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi in their lockers the day after they lost Game 5 101-76 at Orlando. Bianchi wrote that the Hawks are 'Team Dummy' and that 'they will always do stupid things and take stupid shots.' Some passages in the copies of the story given to Hawks players were underlined, including: 'The Magic are going to win this series and the Birdbrains are going to fold up and collapse like a $5 lawn chair. You know it, I know it and, deep down in the lonely recesses of their fragile minds, the Birdbrains know it, too.' Hawks forward Josh Smith was offended by the column. 'You’ve got reporters calling people idiots and dummies,' Smith said Thursday. 'I don’t understand how people can challenge somebody’s intelligence when you are talking about basketball. Some people take it too far.' Hawks coach Larry Drew said it wasn't his idea to pass out the article to the team but added, 'Certainly we can use bulletin-board material.' "

  • Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: "The road of regression is complete. The Magic have come to a devastatingly depressing dead end. From NBA Finals two years ago to first-round losers Thursday night. They used to run with Lakers and Celtics; now they can't even hang with the Hawks. So where do they go now after this devastating 84-81 season-ending loss to Atlanta? Where do they go now that they have become lost on this highway to nothingness? Team CEO Bob Vander Weide has already said nobody is getting fired and that he is happy with general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy. But as Van Gundy said before tipoff Thursday night, 'Those votes of confidence are usually the kiss of death in this game.' Of course, Van Gundy was joking even though this is not a joking matter. We are, after all, only talking about the future of the franchise here. And since it appears nobody else will take the fall, I guess I will. If Vander Weide needs a scapegoat, I'll take the blame. I'll volunteer to be fired -- as long as I get Van Gundy's $8 million buyout. It was me, after all, who provided the Hawks their fuel and fire heading into Game 6. I admit it, I thought these loony birds would fold like a $5 lawn chair after the Magic blew them out by 25 in Game 5. ... The Hawks were 6-18 this season against teams that won 50-plus games. In contrast, they were 7-3 against the Magic. This should tell you all you need to know. The road of regression is complete."

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: "Zach Randolph couldn't sleep. Mike Conley and several teammates spent the night watching their Game 5 loss again and again. The Grizzlies insist that they won't be reeling when their playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs shifts back to FedExForum tonight for Game 6. They'll be restless. 'I wish we could play right now,' Randolph said Thursday shortly after a noon film session. The Grizzlies' leading scorer must wait for an 8 p.m. tip-off for the chance to end what has been a dramatic first-round playoff matchup. Memphis leads the series 3-2 and is trying to become the second eighth seed to knock off a No. 1 seed since the opening-round switch to a best-of-seven format. ... Lionel Hollins isn't concerned that several of his players openly talked about not wanting to return to San Antonio for a Game 7. He said that's not a sign that the Griz feel pressure. Instead, it shows that his players are motivated. 'I don't want to go back to San Antonio, either,' Hollins said. 'I'd rather win and move on. But whatever happens will happen. We just have to go out and compete and play the game.' "

  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: "Gifted new life by Neal’s miracle fling, the Spurs now aim to live it to the fullest. Still down 3-2 in the series, the Spurs face another do-or-? die situation tonight in Game 6 at the FedEx Forum, where Memphis won Games 3 and 4. For the first time, they have a chance to push the upstart Grizzlies to the edge of elimination as well. 'I don’t know if we put a doubt in their mind,' Parker said. 'But we won (Game 5) and now we get another shot to try and win on the road.' Given the Grizzlies’ poise so far, it would be foolhardy to expect them to fold now. For much of the series, Memphis has not acted like a No. 8 seed devoid of much postseason experience. It was not until overtime Wednesday that coach Lionel Hollins thought his team played down to its age. 'We had too many guys that were hurt and not mature enough at this stage to just let it go,' Hollins said. The Spurs are not expecting their Game 5 magic to break the Grizzlies, who remain one win away from becoming just the second eighth seed to win a best-of-7 series. Still, there is little question Neal’s shot has shifted the pressure in the series. For the first time, the Grizzlies find themselves in a game that feels like a must-win. Lose tonight, and suddenly Memphis must come back to San Antonio for a Game 7, to confront the possibility of squandering an historic opportunity in a series they had all but won. If that happens, those four championship banners hanging overhead at the AT&T Center will begin to look more like guillotine blades."

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "When Mike Woodson, who interviewed for the Rockets' vacant head coaching position on Thursday, led the Atlanta Hawks to improved records for five consecutive seasons, he started the run after a 13-win season. With the Rockets, he would be taking over a team that won 43 games. The plan, however, has not changed. 'You'd like to think we could do that again,' Woodson said. 'I would not be coming in to do any different. You just work and keep working to get better.' ... Woodson, who played three seasons with the Rockets late in his 11-year NBA career and kept his home in Katy, had a 206-286 record in six seasons with the Hawks before sitting out last season. 'You would like to think that would have some value to it,' Woodson said of his head coaching experience. 'I'm sure all the other guys have their qualities as well. The fact that I was able to take a team from scratch and build it speaks volumes. It was a good six-year run for me. Hopefully I'll have another opportunity. I thought it went well. It was a long interview, which I expected. They gave me an opportunity to know the general manager, Daryl Morey, and his staff and for them to get to know me. I thought it was very productive.' "

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: "What many people thought would be a typical Larry Bird end-of-the-season press conference turned out to be pretty interesting. Bird said he wasn’t trying to throw owner Herb Simon under the bus by saying he wants to see if his boss is willing to spend money this summer. 'The big question of mine to him is, ‘Now that we have the money will be able to spend it?,’ ' Bird said. 'We waited three years to get to this point and now what can we do with it.' Bird may not have wanted to do that, but that’s what he did when he made that comment. The Pacers president is all on board to return to the team next season as long as things go well during his meeting with Simon. The two are expected to meet within in the next week or two. Simon is currently in California."