First Cup: Tuesday

  • Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News: Coaches torture themselves over success, and Gregg Popovich has been lately. He’s been wondering out loud among his staff that, well, wouldn’t it be better to lose a game? “That’s why,” one of his assistants kidded him, “you are coach of the year.” Popovich wasn’t laughing. He’s felt the winning streak has become a burden, and he didn’t like the feel that a relaxed first round was giving his players. It’s the same reason he also dislikes 20-point leads in the first half. So what happened Monday, when the Spurs coughed and sputtered toward a sweep, gave him hope. Popovich can treat the latest win like a loss, and he will take the Spurs into the film room to see a few things. Or, as Stephen Jackson put it with a smile, “Pop’s got something to teach on.” The broader picture should include a few positives. The Spurs did what the best teams do, which is take out an opponent as quickly as possible to minimize injuries. The Spurs were healthy going into the playoffs, and they are still healthy. Ask Chicago, among others. This isn’t something to complain about.

  • Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune: And so, it has ended for the Jazz. An ugly game that got away in the second half, and then, remarkably, was almost reeled back in. A playoff series that was dominated by a better team. A season that even in the disappointment of four straight losses to the Spurs, the final one an 87-81 defeat at home that simply refused to be coerced into a win, could and should be recorded as a success. Not a raging success, but a success nonetheless. "I wouldn’t consider it a success," Gordon Hayward said. "I consider it improvement. It’s not a success unless you win the whole thing." That was never in play. It was hard for the Jazz to see the positives in the throes of defeat, a defeat that went from a 21-point margin down to a 4-pointer near the end. But the sun that set on them Monday night will also rise Tuesday morning. And a whole lot of mornings in the future. Is that too charitable? Too optimistic? No.

  • Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News: Anyone with kids understands the ambiguity of growth spurts. See, when you're around your kids day after day after day, you don't quite realize how much they're actually spouting. They're literally growing right before your eyes, but it's occurring at such a gradualpace you don't even notice. But then a moment comes along when it hits you. Maybe they're standing alongside a friend they once stood eye-to-eye with but now tower over. Or maybe the jeans that once hung too long on them no longer cover their ankles. And you think to yourself, `Wow, when did that happen?' That kind of moment occurred Monday with the Clippers. Maybe we weren't paying close enough attention or perhaps we've been too close to them to truly notice. But their 101-97 overtime victory over the desperate Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs showed us just how far they've come over a short period of time, just how much they've sprouted over the last four months. The Clippers took a decisive 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and can close things out Wednesday in Memphis. Make no mistake, the Clippers have grown up. In mind, spirit and body.

  • Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: Perhaps the most remarkable part of Ray Allen’s return from a month of inactivity has been his consistency during the past two games against the Hawks. The Celtics guard, finally slotted in the sixth-man role coach Doc Rivers has envisioned for him at least since the All-Star break, has put up classic sixth-man numbers, including a 12.5 scoring average and 11-for-21 (.524) shooting. Only his 3-point shooting (2-for-7) has been a tad slower to take off, but there’s always time, especially now with the Celtics taking a 3-1 first-round series lead into Game 5 tonight in Atlanta. Though there’s always the threat of a day-after setback — a constant concern for someone who admits he’ll need surgery on the bone spurs in his right ankle this summer — Allen looked resolute Sunday night. “I feel surprisingly great,” he said. “I’m really managing my off days really well. And you have a tendency when you get back off of an injury (to) kind of let it slide a bit, (but) I haven’t been. And it’s important to me to rest up. I know once I get in the game, my body’s going to require a little bit more, so I’m trying to move and shoot around on days before games. When I get my shots up, I’m trying to move and mirror what I’m going to do in the game, so there’s no surprises.” It’s unlikely that there’s another player in the league with a more scientific approach to preparation than Allen. Few players work harder to refine their mechanics, and fewer still have such a consistently fluid stroke.

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: It took barely a week, but the industrious Hawks have done it. They’ve thrown away a 1-0 series lead and an 11-point advantage in a Game 2 for which the best Celtic was suspended, and they’re back where they feel most accustomed — being given no chance to do anything except embarrass themselves further. Surely more folks would grant them a chance if they gave any indication they’d know what to do with one, but these are, for better and worse, the Hawks. In Boston they managed an improbable double, even by their crazy-quilt standards: They played a strong Game 3 without Josh Smith and Al Horford and a terrible Game 4 with both on the floor. ... Nobody knows why, though theories abound. They’re weak-willed. (I can see why people say it, but I also know that a weak-willed team wouldn’t have won Games 6 and 7 against Milwaukee in 2010.) They lack a big man. (And who’s that playing center for Boston? Bill Russell?) They don’t have a superstar. OK, that’s legit. ... Despite the Hawks’ best efforts, this series isn’t yet lost. But the Hawks cannot wait for Joe Johnson to win it for them. As good as he can be, he’s not that good.

  • Tom Moore of phillyBurbs.com: The clinching game of a playoff series tends to be difficult. Doug Collins called it “the hardest game to win in sports.” The opposing team’s desperation for its season to continue is perhaps the most significant factor. With a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls, the 76ers can advance with a victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night (9:30 on Comcast SportsNet/NBA TV) at the United Center. Having won three in a row and with Chicago missing all-star guard Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and center Joakim Noah (sprained ankle), the Sixers seem to have a lot going for them. But the Sixers lack playoff close-out experience. Only one Sixer in Collins’ regular rotation (Elton Brand, 2006 with the Clippers) has been on a team that won a postseason series. Those nine players have appeared in a total of just 16 series, meaning 15 ended with the other team closing them out. Eighth-year pro Andre Iguodala has lost in the first round four times.

  • Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times: The Bulls hoped to benefit from Rip Hamilton’s playoff wisdom, but they didn’t expect his experience of once being down 3-1 in a first-round series to come in so handy. If the Bulls can’t match what Hamilton’s Pistons did in 2003, when they won three in a row to eliminate the Magic, their season will be over. “It’s been a crazy year, from beginning to right now, so we know that,” Hamilton said. “We know that nothing’s easy. It hasn’t been easy for the whole season, with injuries and guys being out, so we know it’s going to be tough. We’ve just got to come out and be ready to play.” If the Bulls are to extend this series, they’ll need to play with more energy in Game 5 Tuesday at the United Center than they did in the first quarter of Game 4. They must offset what has become a huge 76ers advantage at the free-throw line. The 76ers have shot 30 or more free throws in three of the four games. They only did that four times all season. They’ll need to play better down the stretch. “The thing they’ve done that has hurt us is they’ve gotten timely offensive rebounds late,” coach Tom Thibodeau said.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: Entering tonight's Game 5 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, with the Lakers ready to close things out on their home court, it's obvious what the Nuggets need to do to keep this best-of-seven series going: Be tougher and rebound better. In their only victory in this series, the Nuggets won Game 3 by controlling the offensive boards. But the Lakers had 10 more rebounds Sunday, including 19 on the offensive glass. That's a killer for the Nuggets because they thrive off points in transition. With the Lakers able to slow the game by controlling the boards, their brawny bigs stole opportunities for Denver to keep the tempo at a fast pace. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets in second-chance points 28-18. ... Tonight brings Game 5, with the Nuggets staring at another first-round exit. They have never come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. Denver will have to play Laker-tough to get back in the game.

  • Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register: The Lakers will have to keep pushing for more in the next round in the face of ever-snarling Kendrick Perkins, whom Bryant calls the best post defender in the game, and Serge Ibaka, who blocked 100-plus more shots than any other player this season. They'll have to go into that raucous Oklahoma City gym and seize at least one game from people who believe it is now their time. They'll have to take it from the amazing Kevin Durant, the onrushing Russell Westbrook, the underrated James Harden and the clutch Derek Fisher. You don't accomplish any of that while sitting down. Bynum trained in a boxing ring over the summer, so he has a heightened respect for taking a punch and still standing your ground. He is also a budding soccer aficionado (although Bryant alleges that Bynum learned everything he knows from playing the FIFA soccer video game), so you know Bynum doesn't really mean to denigrate the world's game. What he means to do is mock Gallinari ... and anyone who expects to become the best by lying down on the job instead of doing the hard work. What Bynum needs to know is that no one will remember, ultimately, that the Lakers did not stoop to Gallinari's level. It's only the first round. This is about who will be the last men standing.

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: I play this little game with Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, even if he's not completely aware he's a participant. About every 10 games or so, I ask him if he wants Paul George to be more assertive offensively. And every time I ask, he looks at me like I'm half nuts (I get this look a lot from people) and talks about all the other good things George does -- like defend, rebound, pass the basketball. There are two reasons Vogel does this: One, he really does like all the other things the second-year player brings to the floor, and he should. Two, Vogel rarely -- OK, never -- criticizes or even mildly chides his players in a public forum. That's not to say he doesn't hold them accountable privately, but in stark contrast to Orlando's Stan Van Gundy, who will happily call out players in the media, Vogel would rather stroke his players than slap them around publicly. Larry Bird, though, doesn't have that problem. Ask a question, you get brutal honesty. "He's got to pick it up," the Pacers president said after Monday's practice. "This isn't the time to feel sorry for yourself. Sometimes players lose their shot, and they lose all their confidence. As he gets along in his career, we think he can be a pretty good scorer. But just because you're not making shots doesn't mean you can't do the other things. Disappointed? No. I mean, he's so young (just turned 22). Last year he was in five playoff games, and it's just the first round this year. These young guys, they're going to learn, each playoff game gets harder as you go along. Not each series, each game. These guys don't understand that yet."

  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: Stan Van Gundy knows that speculation is rampant that this playoff series against the Indiana Pacers will mark the end of his tenure as the Orlando Magic's coach. But Van Gundy maintains the rumors don't bother him. "I've been around coaching my entire life — literally, my entire life," Van Gundy said after the Magic finished practice Monday at Amway Center. "I really think, for all coaches, I don't think that's disconcerting at all. You sort of know when you go into it — and, for me, I knew long before I went into it because I'd been around it — that's all part of it. You don't worry about that. "I think the only thing you worry about is winning games, and you're not happy being down 3-1. I'm upset about losing Game 4 and the whole thing. But the rest of it, I don't have any control over that. I do have some control over getting our team ready to play." The Magic will face the Pacers in Game 5 at 7 tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Van Gundy owns a 259-135 regular-season record and a 31-27 postseason record as the Magic's coach