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First Cup: Friday

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: With the NBA's best record, the Bulls know they can beat anybody. Still, there are moments in any season where statements must be made. And, having dropped five of their last six games to teams in playoff position, Thursday night at United Center provided such a test. The Bulls passed with more physical than flying colors, outlasting the Celtics 89-80 in a defensive struggle that looked more like a playoff game than regular-season affair. Both teams shot just below 40 percent. Luol Deng finished with 23 points and 10 assists, including five points in a 12-0 run that snapped a 69-69, fourth-quarter tie. And coach Tom Thibodeau rode fourth-string point guard Mike James — of all people — down the stretch with James delivering two assists in the game-changing spurt and playing physical defense on Rajon Rondo. "I'm not going to let nobody smaller than me post me up," James said. "I take pride in my defense." The Bulls improved to 7-2 without Derrick Rose, who sat for the fourth straight time with his sore lower back.

  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: Former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause used to say he wanted to avoid dissolving a great team like the Celtics did in the late 1980s and early ’90s. But even by breaking up his club a little early after six championships in eight years, he found building up was hard to do. And the current Celtics, who lost to the Bulls, 89-80, last night, may be facing a similar situation in the coming summer. Chicago had money to spend for the 1998-99 season after the departures of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley, but it had a hard time finding takers for the dough. “Brent Barry was our big free agent signing,” said Bill Wennington, one of the holdovers from the title team. “It was hard to get guys to come in and follow what we’d done with Michael and Scottie and everyone. “Guys have to want to come and play in your city for whatever reason. Now it seems that the hot spots are the hot spots (warm-weather cities) — unless you’re Orlando, I guess.” Dwight Howard is looking to leave the Magic, and he’s interested in a place where he can win right away.

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: By my unofficial count, Danny Granger has been traded 1,637 times on Indiana Pacers message boards. Traded for Eric Gordon. Traded for a fun-pack of Cheetos. Traded constantly. Which is why it's probably good that Larry Bird runs the Indiana Pacers, and not Joe From Kokomo or Cheezy Beef. It's time to stop talking about all the things Grangerdoesn't do really well and talk, at least for one minute, about the thing he does really well: Score. Like he did Thursday night, scoring 32 points in the Pacers' 93-88 victory over the New Jersey Nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The guy will drive the message-board denizens mad (sometimes Bird and coach Frank Vogel, too), but when the game is on the line, there is nobody else on this team who is better suited to win a game. "Any time somebody is sort of the face of the franchise that isn't winning, like we hadn't won for a couple of years, they're going to nitpick every little thing he doesn't do,'' Vogel said. "But you've got to appreciate what he does do.'' Here's when some of us knew that the Pacers could not afford to move Granger: last year's playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, when Granger averaged 21.6 points and never scored fewer than 19 against the best defensive team in the league. The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. Defenses take away your first option, your second and your third. Enter Granger.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: Indiana Pacers second-year guard Paul George received an invitation Thursday to take part in the slam dunk competition during All-Star weekend in Orlando, Fla. George hopes he can get the Legend to give him a hand, too. George said he wants Pacers President Larry Bird to help him in the competition Feb. 24. "My agent called, and (Bird) said he'll do it if he has nothing come up," George said. ... George's goal is to join the likes of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter as a winner in the competition. "There's one dunk for sure that's never been done before in the contest that I'm sure of," George said. "It'll be something that will open eyes, and there's some other stuff that might have been done before, but not the way I'm going to do it."

  • Colin Stephenson of The Star-Ledger: Brook Lopez is on the way, Nets fans. He’ll be back before the All-Star break, probably sometime this weekend — maybe even next game. But is it already too late to be meaningful? The Nets played hard Thursday night against a good Indiana Pacers team playing its third game in three nights. But playing hard once again was not enough for the Nets, who lost for the eighth straight time, falling to the Pacers, 93-88 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They lost even as Deron Williams scored 29 points, with four assists and six rebounds, and Kris Humphries added 24 and 10 rebounds, with three blocked shots. They lost because they turned the ball over 20 times, and because the Pacers hit their free throws down the stretch. Danny Granger led all scorers with 32 for Indiana. And so the Nets have started this stretch of five games in six nights, and six in eight, with two straight losses in games they had a chance to win. Next up is the Bulls Saturday in Chicago, the first of three games in three nights.

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: The numbers don't tell the entire story — at least not in the eyes of Clippers guard Randy Foye and Coach Vinny Del Negro. Foye has started six consecutive games for the Clippers in place of Chauncey Billups, who is out for the season because of a torn left Achilles' tendon. Foye has not shot well, but his defense, hustle and all-around play have not gone unnoticed. "I think he's getting a little more comfortable," Del Negro said. "He hasn't shot it great. But Randy plays hard. The guys really respect him and he gives you great effort. We have a lot of confidence in Randy." In his last five starts before Thursday, Foye shot 34.8% (16 for 46) from the field and 28% (seven for 25) from three-point range. He averaged 10 points and three assists. "I'm just focusing on winning," Foye said. "That's all that matters. Everything else will handle itself. I know what I can do. I know a lot of other people know what I can do. So, my main thing is just to win and everything else will handle itself."

  • John Canzano of The Oregonian: Portland lost ugly, 74-71 to the Clippers. But a night like this makes me think about the Blazers' competitive disadvantage off the court. Because even as most will see this fight over Smith a New York vs. Los Angeles thing, it's really not. This is just a pair of NBA franchises that very badly want to win. Ones that know how. They want a player, so much so that one apparently dispatched a lieutenant to the airport from NYC to intercept Smith and the other turned its head coach loose offering a promise of playing time behind his current player's backs. The Knicks were said to be close to a deal with Smith at press time. They had an experienced man in position, I guess. The Clippers only had promises. But in a negotiation such as this, with the teams willing to one-up each other, and Smith holding all the leverage, I'll wait to see Smith receiving a bounce pass from Lin/Paul to make the call. There's a bigger issue buried in this recruiting battle for the Blazers, however. Portland remains unprepared to play on the big stage next summer. Still no general manager. Still no apparent direction. No decision-maker with boots on the ground. Nobody to make promises or meet the airplane. Chad Buchanan, the acting GM, deserves the job but hasn't received it, and says he's happy in his role. So when it comes time to make a deal at the March 15 NBA trade deadline, or woo a free agent in the summer, do the Blazers even understand what they're up against? ... The Blazers would love to woo Gerald Wallace into exercising his one-year player option instead of turning unrestricted free agent in June, but who does the sweet-talking? Crawford is a free agent. Who makes the promises of playing time? The Blazers need a center to replace Marcus Camby. Who meets that player's plane at the airport? It's the game beyond the games that I'm most tuned into when it comes to Portland's future.

  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: Lin has been the biggest story in sports for his Lin-credible play during a seven-game winning streak. The second-biggest story in New York has been speculation that when Anthony returns from a groin injury -- perhaps Friday night against the Hornets -- he could disrupt the Knicks' newfound chemistry. But Lin said Anthony went to Mike D'Antoni seven games ago and suggested he play the undrafted point guard from Harvard. Lin also said he and Anthony have talked about what it will be like when they play together. "I've been hearing reports, 'Can Jeremy coexist with Melo?' and this and that, and I'm just confused, because he's the one who vouched for me in the first place," Lin said on "The Boomer and Carton Show" on WFAN Thursday morning. "We want to play together and we want to win together and we're buying into that. Some people call Melo selfish and he doesn't buy into the team. That's just tough for anyone to hear, especially when we don't think it's true."

  • Richard Sandomir of The New York Times: There is a sliver of hope that the impasse between Time Warner Cable and MSG Network might end soon — allowing those deprived of watching Jeremy Lin to finally grasp the worldwide Linsanity. James L. Dolan, the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden, and Glenn A. Britt, the chairman of Time Warner Cable, met Monday for less than an hour, said two people briefed on the situation but not authorized to speak publicly. It is the only encouraging news to emerge during the 47-day blackout. The Dolan-Britt meeting is likely to lead to their assigning their dealmakers to resume long-dormant talks in the coming days. That, in turn, could lead to an exchange of offers. How soon that happens is anyone’s guess. A chasm divides them. So, it seems, does a lack of trust. Much of what is known about past negotiations comes from Time Warner Cable: that it agreed on an MSG proposal to raise rates by 6.5 percent only to see MSG renege and demand a 53 percent hike.

  • Benjamin Hoffman of The New York Times: In the case of Jeremy Lin, one of those paying attention was a FedEx delivery truck driver in Bend, Ore., named Ed Weiland, who moonlights as a contributor to HoopsAnalyst.com. Before the 2010 N.B.A. draft, Weiland examined Lin’s body of work as a college player at Harvard and concluded that he might be among the best point guards available. At the time, Weiland was essentially ignored. Now he looks like a prophet. He has seen his own profile soar as Linsanity has taken hold of the N.B.A.; the increased traffic to the HoopsAnalyst site crashed its servers multiple times. If you look hard enough on the Internet, you can find blogs predicting breakouts for more players than you can possibly remember. But it was the specificity of Weiland’s argument for Lin that set his analysis apart. In it, Weiland equated the chances of finding a star point guard in the 2010 draft to winning the lottery. “The best candidate to pull off such a surprise might be Harvard’s Jeremy Lin,” Weiland wrote. “The reason is two numbers Lin posted: 2-point FG pct and RSB40.”

  • Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: After Stephen Jackson was benched for the second half of a game against Denver Jan. 17, I asked the Bucks veteran swingman whether he had any inkling Bucks coach Scott Skiles was going to do that. Jackson said he didn't get any advance warning and he didn't get any explanation after the game, either. It was abundantly clear even then that Jackson, whom the Bucks acquired from Charlotte last June and was expected to be a key piece to the Bucks' puzzle this season, wasn't on the same page with Skiles. Now, a month later, Jackson's relationship with Skiles seemingly has disintegrated. In an interview with Rod Burks of Channel 4 (NBC) in Milwaukee, Jackson said: "We don't have no relationship like I've had with other coaches and I don't expect to have one. Too much stuff has happened." Considering the strained relationship and Jackson's limited playing time and productivity, it's a given the Bucks will try to unload Jackson before the March 15 trading deadline.

  • Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: Buss says that with Jackson now retired and living here, they are making up for all those nights they spent apart. "I'm catching up on all the things I missed doing with my boyfriend for 12 years," she says. "He was always working, and he's not now, so I like to stay home and hang with him." But there's obviously more here. Attending 10 more home games wouldn't seem to have a huge impact on hang time with a retiree. Buss' absence seems to be a statement that is less about her personal life and more about her basketball team. Is she as befuddled by their approach as everyone else? Or, like many others, is she just plain bored? "This year has been unusual … unique," she admits. "They should put a star next to it." To understand Jeanie Buss' situation, one must first understand her position in the organization, where her father, Jerry, has essentially split the handling of the team's operations between her and her brother Jim. ... Does she have faith in her brother? "I have confidence and faith in the basketball department," she says. "We've gone through this before in 2004; it will all work out, it always does." But is there a disconnect between one of the Lakers' most visible figures and the Lakers? "There are so many different layers to that question," Jeanie Buss says. But only one seat. And it's usually empty.