First Cup: Friday

  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Let's assume for a moment that the Orlando Magic retain Dwight Howard beyond the March 15 trade deadline. Even with Howard in the fold, the team will have to make significant improvements defensively for it to have any shot at making a deep in the playoffs. Thursday night offered a painful case in point. After three strong quarters, the Magic wilted against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unable to stop All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Magic relinquished an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost 105-102 at Amway Center. "Our fourth-quarter defense was pathetic," coach Stan Van Gundy said after his Magic allowed the Thunder to shoot 67 percent in the final period. "I give them credit for what they did, and they're hard to stop. But it shouldn't be every possession." Durant scored 18 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth. Westbrook played through a left-ankle sprain in the fourth to finish with 29 points and 10 assists. And the Thunder improved on their league-best record. "That's one of the best, if not the best, offensive duo in the NBA," Magic power forward Ryan Anderson said. "They're tough. They're tough to guard. They're aggressive to the glass and they get foul calls."

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Thunder coach Scott Brooks rarely deviates from his substitution pattern. But when injuries mounted, Brooks had to start getting creative. One of the ways he's done that lately is by shortening Kevin Durant's court time at the start of the game. Durant generally plays either all 12 minutes of the first quarter or gets subbed out with about two minutes remaining in the opening period. In a couple of recent games, including Wednesday at Philadelphia, however, Brooks sat Durant with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first period. “I try to mix it up with him, just to give our second unit a different look,” Brooks said. “It's really game-to-game. I like changing it up with him. I don't do it often. “But with Kevin, he's going to get his minutes because they're always played hard and he's one of our better players. But it really wasn't anything other than just giving the second unit a different look.” Brooks did say the strategy sometimes depends on matchups, specifically the size of opponents' big men.

  • Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: The Clippers' unofficial cheerleader, the rotund dancing guy in a red and blue suit named Darrell Bailey, caused a stir this week when he issued a statement on his website claiming that the Clippers, "no longer want me to be Clipper Darrell.… I am devastated!" ... The Clippers say they actually offered their cheerleader a chance to be treated exactly like a Clippers cheerleader, with a $70 nightly salary but no unsanctioned interviews or appearances, and he refused. "He's a really good person, but he told us he's in this to make money," Carl Lahr said. "Once that happens, that changes the whole fan dynamic." Everyone who believes this conflict would have never arisen if the Clippers had not become a hot ticket should realize the team has been having these discussions with Bailey for five years. And everyone who thinks Bailey is simply a Clippers "fan" should understand that several years ago, he says, he flew to Dallas to explore Mark Cuban's offer that he become a Mavericks "fan." Many have said that the Clippers are Scrooges for not allowing Bailey to make money from their name. But it's not about the money, it's about the image. "Shouldn't we have a responsibility in having some part in how he represents us?" Lahr said. Bailey's most celebrated unsanctioned Clippers appearance occurred when he organized a parade without their knowledge in support of signing LeBron James, about to become a free agent. Even for an organization accustomed to embarrassment, it was truly a moment of humiliation. Fewer than 50 fans showed up and, because the parade was held amid the crowds and closed streets in front of Staples Center before a Lakers playoff game, the marchers had little room to march. Darrell Bailey is, by all accounts, a nice man with a good heart. Here's hoping he will come back to Staples Center in full regalia when the team returns there March 11. Here's hoping he can agree to lead cheers without profiting from them. He might not be Clipper Darrell, but he'll always be the Clippers' Darrell, and here's hoping that's enough.

  • Matt Kawahara of The Sacramento Bee: Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, adamant recently that teammate Isaiah Thomas has not received enough attention for his play, can now consider Thomas recognized. Thomas was named the NBA's Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February on Thursday, following a month in which the 5-foot-9 guard broke into the Kings' starting lineup and led all conference rookies with an average of 12.2 points per game. Thomas is the first Kings player to earn the honor since guard Tyreke Evans in December 2009, and the fourth in team history. Upon receiving the news via text, Thomas said, "I just smiled. … It was unexpected. I didn't think I would get it. But it was nice." Thomas, who made his first start for the Kings on Feb. 17 in Detroit, averaged 19.2 points in his first five starts prior to Thursday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Thomas tied Otis Birdsong's franchise record for the most points by a Kings rookie in his first five starts (96), while the Kings had 21 or more assists in four of those five games.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Suns players were charged with thinking up self-improvement ideas, and suggestions for their coaches, when they met among themselves Tuesday morning. One thought expressed was for the reserves to be trusted more. "The second unit is going to be huge for us, and I think it has been huge," Suns backup point guard Sebastian Telfair said. "I think there should've been more put on us in the first half of the season. We should've been used more. We're going to win or lose a lot of games with the second unit." Part of coach Alvin Gentry's issue with the reserves' play has been at the point, where he wants Telfair to get an offensive flow going earlier in possessions. "We've got to get that ball moving on the initial play," Gentry said. "The (second unit) is more quick-hitting than anything. If that doesn't work, we try to get into the flow."

  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Whether it was due to the Timberwolves' continued youthful inconsistency or the stressed NBA schedule-maker's curse, the venerable Phoenix Suns once again turned back time in their 104-95 victory on Thursday night at US Airways Center. They did so with two guys beyond their 38th birthdays excelling in a game Wolves coach Rick Adelman had called a "character" test. Thanks to last summer's long labor lockout that forced a truncated 66-game season and some creative schedule-making, his young team played its third game in three nights on the road while the Suns went back to work for the first time since the All-Star break. The Wolves led by 10 points before halftime, then surrendered to two-time league MVP Steve Nash's playmaking and will, and to a Suns team that simply outrebounded and then outran them with its combination of old and young legs. "They were running; even Grant Hill looked young tonight," Wolves forward Kevin Love said in his first game back from a stomach ailment. "That goes to show you right there."

  • Matt Calkins of The Columbian: The Trail Blazers locker room was draped with scouting reports and featured a dry-erase board covered with all sorts of reminders and notes on how to counteract the Heat. Miami’s board, meanwhile, probably looked something like this: We have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They don’t. Playing without Chris Bosh, the power forward coping with the death of a family member, the Heat were left with just two thirds of their Big 3. But after downing the Blazers 107-93, Miami looked like anything but a squad missing an All-Star. James tallied 38 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, answering every boo with a bucket. Wade added 33 points and 10 assists, responding to each jeer with a jumper. And despite a bevy of mini-runs throughout the second half, the Blazers never cut the lead down to single-digits. This was being outmatched in its purest form. “They have two great players over there — LeBron and Dwyane were on top of their game tonight,” said McMillan, who came off much more accepting that he did discontent after the game. “I thought our guys really worked hard to try to force those guys over the top ... but it’s a tough matchup when you have guys like that who can score and are willing passers.”

  • Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: The second half of the season began just like the first half ended — another blowout for the Heat. Playing the best basketball in the NBA going into the All-Star break, Miami picked up where it left off on Thursday in Portland with a 107-93 victory against the Trail Blazers. The Heat (28-7) has won nine straight games, all by double-digits , and they did it at the Rose Garden without Chris Bosh, who missed the game to attend his grandmother’s funeral. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade more than picked up the slack, combining to score 71 points. Wade had 22 points in the first half, turning a close game into a bludgeoning in the blink of an eye. “We’re just playing basketball at an all-time high as far as us together,” James said. The outcome was never in doubt but the Heat’s streak of consecutive victories by at least 10 points hung in the balance for a few minutes in the fourth quarter. That’s the mark of a team on a ridiculous winning streak — the only drama to be had is that of margin of victory.