First Cup: Monday

  • Harvey Araton of The New York Times: Knicks fans will wait three days with bated breath. They will interpret Wade’s inability to exploit the defensive switch that left the vulnerable Stoudemire on him — “I lost control of the ball and had to take it out for 3,” Wade said — as a sign of something, anything, that might bring them back to the Garden on Friday night. Maybe the Heat will start to hear footsteps or have a player go down; that seems to be in the air this playoff season. Wade, for one, had his ankles in ice after Sunday’s game. Bottom line: don’t tell Knicks fans — that ever loyal band of wishful thinkers and Anthony worshipers — that no N.B.A. team has ever recovered from a 0-3 playoff deficit. Not after they finally left a playoff game without having to curse the fates while finding the rationalization to still care. “It was a great win for us and our fans to get over the hump,” Stoudemire said. “To finally get over the hump now and win a game today is great.” It was now or not until next year for the Knicks, several of whom won’t be back, and their fans, most of whom certainly will return just as they have season after deflating season. They all earned the win Sunday. But all things considered, the paying sufferers in the stands deserved it more.

  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: The perception was that thanks largely to key injuries to opponents’ star players Miami might not face a real challenge until the anticipated NBA Finals against Oklahoma City. Heck, LeBron was even asked the other day if he thought Miami’s championship would be “tainted,” and require the mythical asterisk, because of all those opponents’ playoff injuries combined with the lockout-caused shortened season. “I don’t think that’s right to say,” James replied. Something else that isn’t right to say is that Miami will waltz through the postseason unchallenged because awe-struck opponents are curtsying and bowing out of the way. Or that Miami can expect to always get by on sheer star power even on nights when it misses 16 three-point shots and 11 free throws and its bench players might as well have stayed on the team bus. “There’s a lesson for us,” ventured Bosh. “We’re going to have to be more attentive and relax a little bit.” Here’s another lesson from this loss: This season might well end for Miami like that book James is reading — with three young men who made a promise fulfilling a dream — but if so it will be hard won, no disclaimers needed, no asterisk required.

  • Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News: The Bulls lost their heart when Derrick Rose ruined his knee in Game 1. The Bulls lost their soul when Joakim Noah turned his ankle in Game 3. Sunday, the 76ers stepped on their necks. As a franchise, the Sixers took a giant step forward. Their 89-82 win gave them a 3-1 first-round leadover the top seed in the Eastern Conference. As an emerging franchise, anything but a win would have created a different image; one having to do with the Sixers' throats, and their inability to breathe and swallow. As it stands, to borrow and to alter a phrase, this is not a choking situation. That was averted. "Absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate," said veteran Elton Brand, who in his reconstructed career has turned into Dennis Rodman. "If we lost today, it would affect our mentality. Our organization. Our franchise. Our talent level. Just all we're doing here. We still have to fight to win this series. But this game, at home, to really take the driver's seat - we had to have this. For the growth of the young guys."

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: The 89-82 deficit on the scoreboard hurt the Bulls badly enough. The 31-14 discrepancy in free-throw attempts felt like piling on. "Listen, we're not going to blame the referees for our loss," Carlos Boozer said. "It was our fault we let up 25 points in the fourth quarter. But the discrepancy was huge and I thought we were being pretty aggressive." Several critical plays down the stretch rankled the Bulls. Trailing 82-80, Boozer drove hard and appeared to draw contact from Elton Brand, who blocked his shot. "It was a great pocket pass by C.J. (Watson)," Boozer said. "I was trying to go to the hole strong. Obviously, I wanted a layup or dunk. I thought I had some contact. I thought I got fouled to be frank. The fouls they were calling on the other side, I thought that call could've been made. But they didn't call it. We just kept playing on." On the ensuing possession, veteran official Dick Bavetta called Watson for a bump on Jrue Holiday as the Bulls' bench exploded in anger. "It was a key sequence," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It kind of went against us."

  • Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe: Spending the first three games of this first-round series in a slow grind, the Celtics were anticipating a breakout performance Sunday in Game 4. They spent the regular season as a shoddy offensive team, unable to score consistently, but looking dominant when they did. If the Celtics ever blended their sparkling defense with an offense that executed and made shots, they would emerge as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. They were such a team in a 101-79 demolition of the Hawks at TD Garden, looking as if they finally had peaked for the postseason. As the East playoffs take shape, with the eighth-seeded 76ers one win from eliminating the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, the Celtics appear primed for another long playoff run if they can knock off the Hawks one more time.

  • Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: I could sense the anguish among tweeps over this one. Just when they thought they could at least expect the Hawks to compete, they do this. So much for management’s boasts about being in the same league as the Celtics and the Lakers. Now comes the mockery from Charles Barkley and every other critic who said the Hawks would eventually go belly up. The Hawks never really surrendered like this all season. So why did it happen now, when they were healthier and the stakes were so high? ... On a day when Mike Woodson finally managed to end his streak of playoff embarrassments, Larry Drew delivered one of his own. His rotations were out of whack again. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d made all the right moves considering his team wasn’t ready to play, but we didn’t get to find out.

  • Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Daily News: Andrew Bynum showed up ready to rumble. So did Pau Gasol. Kobe Bryant didn't need to put the Lakers on his shoulders. The Lakers absorbed all the Denver Nuggets could deliver and still walked away with hugs and high-fives after a gritty 92-88 victory in Game 4 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series Sunday night at Pepsi Center. There would be no repeat of their Game 3 meltdown. The Lakers can eliminate the Nuggets from the best-of-7 series with a victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. A win also would set up a much-anticipated conference semifinal matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ramon Sessions' 3-pointer from the right corner and Steve Blake's 3 from the left one gave the Lakers the breathing room they needed in the final minute to seal the deal and take a commanding 3-1 lead over Denver in the series. Sessions broke an 86-all tie with a 3 with 48.1 seconds remaining, after Gasol freed him with a hard pick on the Nuggets' Danilo Gallinari and then made an alert pass. Gallinari didn't do his team any favors by falling to the court and lying there. "He's a big guy," Bryant said of Gallinari. "He can't flop on the screen-and-roll."

  • Bemjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: Game 5 is Tuesday night at Staples Center, with Denver needing to win to bring the series back home on Thursday. "I think everybody knows why we lost the game - we didn't rebound and we didn't make them miss enough shots," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "They asserted their size." L.A. won the rebounding battle 48-38. It's a powerful challenge," Karl said of winning the next three games. "I don't think it's an impossible challenge." It was a devastating loss for the Nuggets, who led at the half and were in the game to the end but could not get a bucket when they needed it most late. And, it was a heartbreaker for the Pepsi Center crowd, which was riled up all night. It was an eerie evening. L.A. had a huge following of its own fans, a couple of fights broke out and, pecularily, a woman wandered onto the court in the first half (she was detained by police and escorted out of the arena).

  • Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: While Caron Butler was grinding through injuries for the Washington Wizards, his teammates started calling him “tuff juice.” Butler took the nickname, made it his Twitter handle (@realtuffjuice), and Saturday, he showed the Clippers why. “I’ve got to live up to it,” Butler said. Sunday after a short practice, Butler talked about the decision to try and play with a broken bone in his left hand, and how it really wasn’t much of a decision at all. “It’s not going to get any more broken,” he said. “…I’m not going to be denied.” Butler scored four points in 23 minutes, but he provided an inspirational lift to his teammates and did a good job trying to slow Memphis’ top scorer, Rudy Gay. “We need Caron out there, a big guard who’s been in the league and been around,” Nick Young said. “And that’s somebody who can give Rudy Gay some problems.” Butler said he has no problems with making Gay his top priority in Game 4 Monday and beyond.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: The Grizzlies clearly weren't in any hurry to attend a film session devoted to making improvements from their Game 3 loss. "I ain't no Xs and Os guy," Griz guard Tony Allen said. "I just know we have to win." The Grizzlies face a 2-1 series deficit in their Western Conference first-round playoff duel with the Los Angles Clippers as Game 4 looms tonight in Staples Center. It's right in many respects to wonder just how powerful film sessions can be at this point. The Griz suffered a pair of one-point losses mainly because of being outworked down the stretch of those games. The Clippers have executed better with the game on the line because they have proven to be the more mentally tough team. "It's a shoulda, woulda, coulda deal when you look at the film," Griz point guard Mike Conley said. "Sometimes you just don't know how we lost. We've got to find a way to correct our mistakes because we're right there. We can still win this series." One of the last things Griz coach Lionel Hollins said Sunday afternoon was short and apropos. "We have to fight," he said.

  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: For three games in the Western Conference playoffs, Utah center Al Jefferson has seen his team beaten every which way, and by a combined 58 points. Finally, he has seen enough. Before Sunday’s practice, Jefferson essentially declared the Spurs to be NBA champions-in-waiting. “I just think we’re playing against a team that is at its peak,” Jefferson said. “I don’t see nobody beating them.” Jefferson’s comments were striking, considering Utah’s series with the Spurs is still in progress. Game 4 is tonight in Utah. Apprised of Jefferson’s prediction after their own practice session at EnergySolutions Arena, the Spurs seemed flattered, but deemed it premature. “The best team out there won’t be decided for a while yet,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to be that team, and we’re trying.”

  • Kurt Kragthorpe of The Salt Lake Tribune: Just once, Jazz fans deserve a good ending. While there’s not much hope of the Jazz’s extending this series beyond a Game 5 in San Antonio, winning Monday’s Game 4 at EnergySolutions Arena would be meaningful. That’s true for two reasons: Through three games, the Spurs have dominated them like no other opponent in the Jazz’s postseason history. And whether they were facing elimination or just trying to catch up in a series, the Jazz have not won their final home playoff game since 2000. This farewell had better be different. Otherwise, the Jazz’s being swept by the Spurs would undo much of the good they’ve done this season. Those 36 victories in the shortened, 66-game season and all the effort it took to make the playoffs would be obscured by four straight defeats. This team has come too far to have it all end this soon. The 2011-12 Jazz deserve to be remembered for more than a first-round playoff disaster. Of course, that legacy is entirely up to them — and the Spurs. Even one Jazz victory in this series would require some cooperation from San Antonio. The Spurs were primed for the playoffs; the Jazz were geared just to get here.