First Cup: Friday

  • Linda Robertson of The Miami Herald: Miami Heat coach and healer Erik Spoelstra has his players on a late-season “maintenance” program. Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has also been giving his guys nights off and treating the battered Derrick Rose with caution. But the R&R approach didn’t relegate Thursday’s game to a place holder on the brutally compressed schedule. When the Heat and Bulls meet, there’s always something at stake. The No. 1 seed in the East is still up for grabs. And the Heat’s ability to win at home and even the season series against Chicago at 2-2 certainly counted on the mind games scorecard. Meaningless? It didn’t look that way when James Jones was whistled for a flagrant foul on Joakim Noah, then ejected. Nor when Dwyane Wade was called for a flagrant flooring of Rip Hamilton and the two continued to jaw and shove throughout the game. Nor when LeBron James delivered a hard shoulder screen that decked John Lucas III, prompting players from both teams to assume the usual combative positions for a midcourt brawl. No fight, but the bad blood got boiling. Hard knocks and hard feelings added to the history of this rivalry, which is projected to continue in what would be the dream Eastern Conference title matchup in June.

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Derrick Rose sat for the 26th time Thursday night. The London Olympics begin in 98 days. If Rose, as expected, makes the U.S. team, might his myriad injuries give him pause? "I really haven't thought about it," Rose said. "But I've said before if I get the opportunity to play in those, it would be a great opportunity. I would have to make the smart decision. But I don't think it would change my mind because if I'm able to play through the playoffs, I should be able to play in the Olympics. "You also have to remember I probably wouldn't play that many minutes because of the great team we would have. Representing your country is a huge honor." The Bulls have no say in whether players play for their national teams. As the face of the host country's team, Luol Deng is preparing to play for Britain with a torn ligament in his left wrist. Joakim Noah will play for France.

  • Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: Dwight Howard is expected to undergo back surgery Friday morning in Los Angeles to repair a herniated disk that will effectively end his season and essentially end any remote chance the Magic may have had of winning a championship. But you know what? This is so much better than the alternative; than the reports and rumors that began to catch fire and circulate throughout the sports world on Wednesday night and all day Thursday. It all started on an Orlando TV station and spread into a full-fledged Skip Bayless ESPN debate on Thursday afternoon: Was Dwight Howard quitting on his team? That was essentially the report aired on WKMG Channel 6 when sports director David "Ping" Pingalore — quoting anonymous sources — reported that Howard called Rich DeVos Friday night and told the 86-year-old Magic owner that he will no longer play for head coach Stan Van Gundy. The report intimated that Howard, in protest of Van Gundy, would miss the playoffs even if he is healthy enough to play. In essence, Channel 6 was saying Dwight may have had a sore back, but he was more sore about his coach. No Magic fan wanted to believe it, but in this dysfunctional Dwightmare of a season anything seemed possible. Even the unthinkable: That Dwight Howard, the captain of the Magic, would turn his back — herniated disk and all — on his teammates and fans. Thank God, it turned out to be untrue. Then again, this is journalism in the Internet age. ... In the end, though, this surgery might be the best thing that ever happened to Dwight. Now he can properly rehab his back. But, mostly, he has a chance to rehab his image.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: "What a game," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "I just thought we just kept hanging in and hanging in and found a way to pull it out at the end. ... It was a gut-check game and we did everything we could to just hang in there and find a way to pull it out." The Suns (33-30) moved back into an eighth-place tie with the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot with three games left for each team to play. Houston fell a game back of both with its sixth consecutive loss, putting the Suns in a situation to clinch a playoff spot if they can win at home Saturday against Denver and at Utah on Tuesday. If Utah wins its final three games at home against Orlando, Phoenix and Portland, it would make the playoffs. A playoff bid is going to require playoff intensity, and the Suns captured that in the third quarter with their venom aimed at Clippers forward Blake Griffin. It started with Jared Dudley getting tangled with him on a foul and not backing down in the aftermath. In the fourth quarter, Griffin was going for a breakaway "SportsCenter"-bound dunk when Suns center Robin Lopez ran him down and braced his left hand on Griffin's back and swiped across his head and throat with his right arm. Lopez was ejected for a Flagrant Foul2 on the play with 6:14 to go, but Clippers guard Mo Williams also received a technical foul for running up on Lopez.

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: The Clippers entered Thursday night's game against the Phoenix Suns with a five-game winning streak and having won 13 of 15 games, but when names have been mentioned for NBA coach-of-the-year candidates, Coach Vinny Del Negro's name is never among them. Del Negro was asked about his thoughts on that, on whether he even weighs something like that. He downplayed it, agreeing that San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Boston's Doc Rivers, Indiana's Frank Vogel and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau should be the leading candidates. "Those guys deserve all that," Del Negro said. The media agreed with Del Negro, but his team has been playing really good basketball as of late.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: The Indiana Pacers began the season simply wanting to move up a spot or two in the Eastern Conference standings after getting a brief taste of the playoffs last season. They've accomplished that and much more. The latest turn in the Pacers' best season in eight years happened Thursday when they secured home court in the first round of the NBA playoffs by beating the Milwaukee Bucks 118-109 in a testy game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "It's tremendous the step that we've taken in one season," Pacers forward Danny Granger said. "How we've had a complete turnaround. Now we're one of the best teams in the NBA. It's really fun to win like this." The Pacers (41-22) will finish as the third or fifth seed. They would host Games 1 and 2 as the fifth seed because they'll finish with a better record than Boston, which is currently the fourth seed. The playoffs open the weekend of April 28.

  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: Everything started spinning out of control in the fourth quarter Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Milwaukee Bucks forward Larry Sanders picked up two technical fouls in a 20-second span, fouled out and was ejected, nearly setting off a melee between the Bucks and Indiana Pacers. And the Pacers continued to send Bucks guard Mike Dunleavy Jr., a former Indiana player, crashing to the floor with hard fouls. This time it was Leandro Barbosa picking up a flagrant-1 foul for hitting Dunleavy on a Bucks fast break. In the midst of all the chaos, the Pacers prevailed, 118-109, to win their seventh straight game and nearly end to the Bucks' playoff hopes. Milwaukee (29-33) lost for the fifth time in its last six games to fall three games behind eighth-place Philadelphia (32-30) with four games to play in the chase for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The 76ers' magic number to clinch a berth dropped to two - any combination of Bucks losses and 76ers victories totaling two will eliminate Milwaukee. "We're on the outside looking in," Dunleavy said. "We've got to do something extraordinary right now."

  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: With an expiring contract and no guarantee from the Hornets on a possible extension, forward Carl Landry may have played his final home game Thursday night at the New Orleans Arena. With two picks already assured to be among the top 14 in June’s NBA draft, it’s not certain what direction the Hornets may go with their rebuilding plans now that Tom Benson owns the franchise. But Coach Monty Williams indicated Thursday night that changes are likely ahead for their roster. “It could be some surprises, and I’ll just leave it at that,’’ Williams said. “We’ve been evaluating older guys, even when they’re not on the floor.’’ Like Landry, shooting guard Marco Belinelli’s current deal expires after this season. Center Chris Kaman, who was acquired in the December trade that sent Chris Paul going to the Clippers, is in the final year of his contract. Although the Hornets listened to trade offers for Kaman before the February trade deadline, Hornets General Manager Dell Demps didn’t trade him. Now Kaman will become an unrestricted free agent. ... Landry said he would like to return to the Hornets, but said he didn’t know if they will pursue re-signing him. “You just never know,’’ said Landry, who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Rockets. “You hear one thing one day, and something (else) the next. You’ve just got to play every game like it’s your last. That’s all you can do, especially in a contract situation like myself. You can’t worry about if you are going to be here tomorrow.’’

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle Just as their season spiraled down the drain from the heights of a four-game road trip sweep to a late-season fold, the Rockets went from a 13-point lead to a 105-99 overtime loss to the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday, filling the night with missed free throws, a bungled offense and a broken defense. The loss sent the losing streak to a season-long six games and all but ended the hopes for a return to the playoffs, the goal Kevin McHale had declared as a plan on the day he was introduced as Rockets coach. “It snowballed,” Rockets forward Luis Scola said. “With every game we lost, the ball was bigger and the rim was smaller. Tonight, we missed shots we never miss. I don’t find a valid excuse, and also I don’t have valid answers.” The Rockets knew only that with their season on the line, they shrunk. The latest loss did not eliminate them mathematically. It did capture where their season went so wrong so quickly.

  • Ray Richardson of the Pioneer Press: The biggest smile in the Timberwolves' locker room Thursday night, April 19, belonged to Wayne Ellington. It took Ellington nearly three full seasons to experience the joy of winning an NBA game in April. Even more satisfying for Ellington was that the Wolves' 91-80 victory over Detroit at The Palace reminded him of a special flashback. "The last time I won a game in April was in 2009, when I won a national championship in Detroit with North Carolina," Ellington said after the Wolves snapped an 11-game losing streak and won their first game in April since a 105-97 victory at Golden State on April 8, 2009. "Unbelievable." The Wolves (26-38) had lost 27 consecutive games in April, a statistic that was picking up steam around the league and giving the Wolves more unflattering publicity.

  • Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: Pistons coach Lawrence Frank gets downright indignant when anyone mentions "tanking" about his team that's destined for a third straight season without a playoff appearance. But after a 91-80 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had lost 11 straight entering Thursday night, fans might be thinking, "Yeah, right." But the schedule might have had something to do with this one since the Pistons were playing their third game in three nights and sixth game in eight nights while the Timberwolves were off Wednesday night. Will Bynum, who tried to lead a comeback by scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter, confirmed that the team was tired, but added: "We ain't had no legs all season. You can't complain about that now."