First Cup: Thursday

  • Geoff Calkins of The Commercial-Appeal: The Memphis Grizzlies clinched a second-straight trip to the playoffs Wednesday night by defeating the New Orleans Hornets, 103-91. And if it wasn’t exactly a surprising development for Rudy Gay and company, it was satisfying, just the same. “No question,” said Gay. “This is why you play. We know where we’re going to be in two weeks. We don’t take that for granted at all.” Gay, of course, would be the last person to take it for granted. He missed last year’s playoff run after shoulder surgery. While Z-Bo and the Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, Gay tried his best to pretend he was thrilled. Inside, he was aching. Of course he was. “I might as well have bought a ticket last year,” he said. “That’s the honest truth.” So this time around, he’s become the ticket. NBA Playoffs, admit one.

  • Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: LeBron James heard the chants Monday in Newark. Now, yes, he would like the award. James told reporters this morning that it would be meaningful to be named the NBA’s MVP for the third time. This, after all, seemed like more of a long shot when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade. But this season, James leads the Heat in every meaningful category, while guarding five positions. I have a vote. And, unlike last year, he will get my first place slot. Kevin Durant will be second on my ballot. I’m still sorting out the rest of the top 5 from a flawed list of options — though Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith and Russell Westbrook will figure in there somewhere, depending in part on how the seedings play out. Dwight Howard will not be on my ballot, and neither will any Bull, Knick or Pacer.

  • Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe: In addition to being nearly traded, Ray Allen was relegated to the bench by the emergence of Avery Bradley, a move that has made the Celtics more athletic and more effective defensively. Bradley’s offensive development has been one of the moresurprising storylines of the NBA season. It appears that Allen would appreciate better communication from team management. Yahoo! Sports reported that Rivers called Allen just hours before the March 15 trade deadline and informed him of the trade to Memphis and then called back 20 minutes later to tell him the deal had been foiled. ... It seems while the Celtics have undergone a resurgence - primarily because trades for Allen and Pierce never materialized - there has been a breakdown in communication and perhaps regard between management and those veteran players. The wedge may be too late to close. Allen wants to finish this season with a championship, but the likelihood of his return next season has diminished. Perhaps those are the prickly issues that arise when eras conclude, but this one should have been massaged and managed better to make the road to the next Celtics’ phase smoother.

  • Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times: Point guard Derrick Rose can’t explain why he has suffered so many injuries, but he said Wednesday that sitting out the last four regular-season games to ensure he’s healthy when the playoffs begin is not an option he’s considering. “I want to play as soon as possible,” Rose said. “I just want to get out there, man. I miss the game.” Rose missed his 25th game with his fifth different injury when he was ruled out against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena. Forward Luol Deng also missed his second consecutive game with sore ribs. They suffered their injuries in the game Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, and the status for both Thursday against the Miami Heat will be game-time decisions.

  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Dwight Howard did not join the Orlando Magic on their road trip for Wednesday night's game against the Boston Celtics, but Magic General Manager Otis Smith said Howard isn't sitting idle. Howard, who has a herniated disk in his lower back, is doing rehabilitation work at Jewett Orthopaedic Clinic's location at RDV Sportsplex. ... Howard's camp is adamant that the All-NBA center wants to return for the postseason. He will be re-evaluated on or around the end of the regular season. Depending how he responds to treatment, he could play in the playoffs. Meanwhile, injured small forward Hedo Turkoglu, is about ready to resume conditioning work, Smith said. Turkoglu fractured his cheekbone April 5 and underwent surgery April 7.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Before we get James Harden’s career-high 40 points, to me there was an even bigger event during Wednesday night’s game. With 2:13 left and the final score already posted at 109-97 because neither team would score again, Thunder starting point guard Russell Westbrook threw a lazy in-bound pass to Harden that was nearly intercepted. An infuriated Scott Brooks immediately motioned Derek Fisher off the bench to replace Westbrook, who did not make eye contact with Brooks as he walked back to the bench. Brooks was sending a message to Westbrook. Whether Westbrook actually received that message is debatable since he didn’t seem to care in the least – which is precisely the entire point of the sequence. A big (+1) to Brooks. ... As for Harden’s performance: If you’re going to go off for a career night, no better place to do it than your hometown or where you played collegiately. The former ArizonaStatestandout had the crowd “oohing” and “ahhing” all night.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The Suns fell back out of the playoff picture, dropping to ninth place in the Western Conference with a 109-97 loss to Oklahoma City at US Airways Center. The loss allowed Utah to move into eighth place, a half-game ahead of Phoenix and Houston, and the Thunder completed a three-game season sweep of the Suns (32-30). The Suns can move back into an eighth-place tie with Utah if they win at home against the Clippers tonight, when Grant Hill is expected to return after missing two games because of a sore right knee. With a week remaining in the season, Houston also could be in that tie with a win tonight at New Orleans, but the Suns hold the tiebreaker in either a two-way or three-way tie. Get through to the playoffs, and the Suns could wind up facing Oklahoma City (45-17), which is a half-game behind West leader San Antonio. "We've just got to go for broke now," Suns point guard Steve Nash said.

  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler are looking forward to Amar'e Stoudemire's return. "Amar'e is an incredible player, and he's been looking great," Chandler said. "It's just a matter of him getting his timing back. But we obviously know we're a way better team with him than without him." Stoudemire remains on schedule to play Friday night in Cleveland. He went through a pregame workout Wednesday night and if there are no issues with his back, he will start against the Cavaliers. ... Anthony has flourished being the Knicks' main scoring threat the 13 games Stoudemire has missed with a bulging disc in his back. There will be an adjustment for everyone involved, but Anthony believes it's been blown out proportion. "I don't think there's anything about a transition or adjustment or anything like that," he said. "I'm pretty sure he'll fit right in. Our biggest thing and his biggest thing is to get him healthy. We're going to need him down the stretch, especially going into the playoffs."

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: It looks as if Kobe Bryant will return Friday in San Antonio. Will it be enough to keep the Lakers ahead of the Clippers for third place in the Western Conference? The Lakers (40-23) are half a game ahead of the unyielding Clippers, who won for the 13th time in 15 games by beating Denver on Wednesday, 104-98. The Clippers have won five consecutive games but finish with three of their last four on the road: at Phoenix, home against New Orleans, at New York and at Atlanta. The Lakers, after visiting San Antonio, play host to Oklahoma City and finish at Sacramento. The Lakers own the tiebreaker against the Clippers (39-23) after winning two of their three regular-season meetings. Beyond whatever local bragging rights (albeit brief) accompany the team that finishes higher in the standings, the Lakers and Clippers want to finish third to avoid a first-round series against a young, well-rounded Memphis team.

  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: Before Wednesday’s game against the Kings at Power Balance Pavilion, Popovich reflected on the time he’s spent with Parker, as what he calls the point guard’s best NBA season hits the home stretch. Parker is averaging 18.6 points and a career-best 7.7 assists. Beyond the numbers, Parker — who turns 30 next month — has blossomed into the type of floor general modeling the Spurs’ first championship-winning point guard, Avery Johnson. “I’ll call something, and he’ll call it off if he sees something different,” Popovich said. “I’ll let him go with it. He’s earned that.” Parker’s command of the Spurs, keeping them in front of the Western Conference in a season in which Manu Ginobili has missed 30 games and Tim Duncan is flirting with a career low in minutes, has elevated the Frenchman to at least the outskirts of the league MVP discussion. “It was something we talked about, and we wanted and we gave him as a challenge,” Popovich said. “He fulfilled the challenge and the expectations. This has been his best year.”

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: Of course. Kenyon Martin, he of the snarling, chip-on-his-shoulder defense, was the guy who changed the game. In an air-tight final minute Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, with playoff positions hanging in the balance, Martin made a tough tip-in and then blocked a shot for the Clippers, who escaped Denver with a 104-98 win over the Nuggets that was closer than the score suggests. The former Denver power forward, who wasn't offered a contract extension and ultimately signed with the Clippers, tipped in a missed jumper with 27.1 seconds left, giving L.A. a 98-96 lead. Then, on the other end, he swatted Ty Lawson's layup into the hands of a Clippers teammate with 19.9 seconds left. Everybody made their free throws and the Clips ped out of town with a W in their luggage. "It's about winning basketball. Never quit playing no matter what the situation is," Martin said. "And that was my only rebound tonight, so it was perfect timing."

  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: The Mavericks have learned some hard lessons through the years, none better than the plain fact that to achieve greatness, you've got to have drive. It took awhile to put it on display, but they finally found it in every sense of the word Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets. Vince Carter, Jason Terry and even Dirk Nowitzki used an assortment of spins and drives to the basket to snap the Mavericks out of a somewhat sluggish first three quarters. The result was a remarkable fourth quarter in which Nowitzki had 21 of his 35 points, and the Mavericks put themselves on the lip of the playoff cup with a 117-110 victory over the Rockets at American Airlines Center.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: For the Rockets, the path to the playoffs is clear. Clarity does come when you have your longest losing streak of the season down the stretch to fall from sixth to 10th. “It’s tough now,” Chandler Parsons said. “We basically have to win out. We do have to win out.” Unless they somehow go from a five-game losing streak to a four-game winning streak, they will have turned into the Boston Red Sox without the fried chicken and beer. If they do somehow pull off such a spectacular turnaround, they still might not get in. It is, however, easier to see them getting the help they need than the four wins. With the Suns and Jazz holding the tie-breakers against the Rockets, the Rockets’ only way in to the playoffs is to get past both in the standings. The Rockets have to win in New Orleans tonight, take care of the freefalling Warriors and somehow win in Miami, where the Heat have the league’s best home record and the Rockets will be playing their sixth game in eight days.

  • Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: There could be more than an NBA Eastern Conference playoff spot on the line for the Milwaukee Bucks in their remaining five regular-season games. There could also be John Hammond’s and Scott Skiles’ jobs. Hammond, the Bucks general manager, and Skiles, their head coach, are nearing the completion of their fourth year with the organization. If the Bucks fail to advance to the playoffs, it would mark the third time in four seasons under their regime that they missed out on postseason play. What’s more, there aren’t any concrete indicators pointing toward a more promising future. In fact, since their blockbuster trade last month that sent Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to Golden State for Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown, the Bucks have posted an anemic 1-7 record against teams with a winning record. Of course, that will be easily forgotten if the Bucks reach the playoffs, which has always been Kohl’s primary goal for his GMs and head coaches. By making the playoffs, Kohl would also save himself an exorbitant amount of money. Skiles and Hammond each have one more season left on their contracts: Skiles for around $5 million and Hammond for around $2 million. At the same time, nobody should be startled if Kohl swallows one or even both of those contracts.

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: No letdown, only a smackdown. The Hawks erased any concern they would fall to an inferior opponent minutes into a 116-84 utter dismantling of the Pistons at Philips Arena on Wednesday night. They set season-highs for points in a quarter (39) and points in a half (72) in building an early lead the Pistons had no hope of overcoming. Consider: The Hawks led 39-20 after the first quarter as nine different players scored. They led 72-42 at the half as all 12 available players entered the scoring column. The .622 shooting percentage was the best of the first half all season. The Hawks led by as many as 37 points in the second quarter. The lead eventually reached 41 in the fourth quarter. oe Johnson logged the most first-half minutes of any starter with just 12. Many starters jumped to their feet and waved towels as the reserves continued to pour it on. The Pistons made only 15 of 44 shots (.341) in the first half. The Pistons ended the first half with 42 points, a total the Hawks had reached with 11:28 remaining in the second quarter. The Philips Arena crowd even attempted the wave in the third quarter.

  • Brian T. Smith of The Salt Lake Tribune: The Jazz destroyed the Portland Trail Blazers 112-91 during a Northwest Division matchup Wednesday at the Rose Garden. Utah (33-30) will make the playoffs if it wins its final three games. All are at home, where the Jazz are 22-8 this season. Two are against teams — Portland, Orlando — missing big-name All-Stars. And a contest against Phoenix next Thursday is shaping up as the make-or-break matchup for the Jazz’s season. Minutes after downing the Blazers (28-35), Utah’s locker room was as proud and strong as it’s been all year. Al Jefferson sang. Paul Millsap laughed and teased. Gordon Hayward smiled and slapped a low-five. All the while, Harris quietly but confidently talked about his game. He discussed his mid-career resurgence. The improved 3-point shot he worked on throughout the lockout. A team that’s believed in itself since December, weathered injuries and losing streaks, and emerged to finally be within sight of the postseason.

  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: Any coach in any sport at any level must possess a large amount of patience if he is going to be successful. Doug Collins must have a reserve tank of it. How else could he still have his sanity after getting practically no production from starting shooting guard Jodie Meeks the past couple of weeks? But Collins keeps putting Meeks out there, night after night, with the hope that the streakiness that makes up the Kentucky product’s shooting will take a major turn upward. ... Streaky shooters will be just that and sometimes hit the type of droughts Meeks is stuck in. But it is worse than that. Meeks, who started the first 38 games of the season and 46 overall, looks unsure of himself on his jump shots, even airballing an important wide-open trey against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. Meeks has maintained the same attitude this season, claiming that he never loses confidence in his shooting and that if he goes through streaks like this, he truly feels his next shot will go in. With the Sixers in a somewhat free fall and struggling to maintain the final NBA playoff spot, the team can ill afford for Meeks not to perform.