First Cup: Friday

  • Ron Borges of the Boston Herald: In sports you often don’t know when a game is being decided. While some things are obvious it is most often the little things that separate those going on from those going home. A critical but mostly unnoticed case in point came with 9:29 remaining and the Celtics leading 71-65. Atlanta’s Josh Smith got into a silly beef about whether or not he could enter the game and was hit with a technical that cost the Hawks a point. Seconds later he had his shot blocked. While he was gesticulating toward his shoulder and refusing to run up the floor, the Celtics fled the scene. Had he trailed the play he might well have knocked the ball loose because his teammates stopped the Celts charge, but Smith was nowhere to be found. Instead of getting into the game defensively, Smith was pleading his case down court, even though no one was listening. ... Smith’s selfishness cost his team three points when it seemed unimportant, which only goes to show you never know when the game will be won or lost. You only know it will be, and it often happens when you don’t even realize it just did. At this level, every play counts. You may not make them all and you may have your own mental lapses and when you do you’ll lose, too, as happened in Game 5 when Rajon Rondo [stats] failed to bring the ball up the middle of the floor with seconds left and ended up trapped on the sideline with nowhere to go but where the Hawks went last night: home. But when it counted, the aging Celtics knew how to win and so they move on to play the 76ers tomorrow night while the Hawks move on to play golf. “We’re playing like this is it,” Pierce said of the fierceness of the Celtics’ approach in the twilight of the New Big Three’s time together. “This could be our last chance together so we’re going to give it one last run and see what happens.”

  • Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Kevin Garnett on Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr.’s comments: “First off, I want to say ‘Thank you’ to their owner for giving me some extra gas tonight. My only advice to him is next time he opens his mouth, actually know what he’s talking about, Xs and Os versus checkbooks and bottom lines. . . . We’re not dirty. We’re firm, we’re aggressive. We’re not dirty. You have to understand the word ‘dirty’ in this game is very defined. Going under guys, trying to hurt guys, ill intent–is not they way we play basketball. ... We play with a lot of passion, play with force. It’s the playoffs but I’m not trying to hurt anybody, nor has my teammates. I just found that comment to be a little rude and a little out of hand and I wanted to address it. Just because you got a bunch of money don’t mean you can open your mouth.”

  • John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News: I DON'T KNOW WHETHER two free throws can change a legacy, but for one night, at least, Andre Iguodala was finally what Philadelphia had begged him to be - the leading man, the guy who made the plays that carried the team to victory. It hasn't been too much to ask. After all, he is the Sixer with thebiggest contract, the one who has been sold as the face of the franchise. Now, let's be real, because sinking two free throws with 2.2 seconds left isn't exactly like draining a long jumper the buzzer to win. That's the realm of the Michael Jordans, Larry Birds and Kobe Bryants. Still given Iguodala's star-crossed history as a Sixer, Philadelphia will gladly take what he delivered Thursday night. And make no mistake, because by sinking those two free throws against the Chicago Bulls, Iguodala, the other A.I., the man who could not be king, sealed the most significant victory this organization has had since the Allen Iverson-led Sixers blew out the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference finals. No, these Sixers did not advance to the NBA Finals, but their 79-78 victory over the Chicago Bulls did advance the franchise to the second round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2003. ... This is the fifth time he has gone to the playoffs with the Sixers. This is the first time he will play more than six games. "Iguodala has gone through a lot here," Collins said. "I told him, 'Nobody deserves this moment more than you did.' "

  • Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune: The ending of Game 6 was as frustrating and painful as this series had been, so it's just as well. This Bulls team was going nowhere. Not like this, anyway. So, now what? Rose needs to get healthy. Duh. It can’t come soon enough. But one convincing argument this series made was the Bulls’ lack of a reliable second scorer. Wait, isn’t this how last season ended? You can hope the Bulls amnesty Boozer and make Taj Gibson the starter. I doubt it will happen, but a man can dream. Injured or not, Gibson was a stud when the Bulls needed one. He turned Game 5 before suffering that gruesome-looking ankle injury and had a similar impact on Game 6 with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Hamilton showed a bit of what the Bulls needed -- what the Bulls will need more of going forward -- but the Bulls have to look at that position. He gave the Bulls 19 points and 8 rebounds in Game 6, but Hamilton hasn’t shown he can stay healthy or play consistently. And please, address backup point guard, because that’s now a starting position without Rose to start next season. Yeah, next season. It’s here.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: The braggadocio echoed. Just minutes before Thursday's tipoff of Game 6 at the Pepsi Center, the rapping voice of The Notorious B.I.G. was heard over the loudspeaker. The song? "Goin' Back To Cali." This opening-round playoff series was supposed to be over Tuesday night. But, after the Nuggets won in Los Angeles in Game 5, they came out with a rapper's swagger in the first quarter of Thursday's Game 6. And now, they're indeed goin' back to Cali for Game 7 with the Lakers, after Denver's 113-96, wire-to-wire victory Thursday night. "I planned to play that as the last song," said Cassidy Bednark, also known as D.J. Bedz, the Nuggets in-house D.J. "Then, I got slipped a note that said, 'Big Al Harrington wants to hear "Goin' Back To Cali." ' Obviously, it was meant to be." Game 7, Denver's first since 1994, will be Saturday night at the Staples Center. Denver trailed 3-1 and now has a chance to pull out a historic victory against the No. 3-seeded Lakers. Before Thursday's game, on the locker room dry-erase board, the first thing written was: "Hit first — hit hard. We must be the physical team." Hit first? Hit hard? The Nuggets came out like Mike Tyson in his heyday. Ty Lawson, 3! Danilo Gallinari, 3! Lawson, layup! Lawson, 3 again! And then, when Kenneth Faried unleashed a two-handed slam, Denver was up 13-0 before the Lakers knew what hit them.

  • Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Daily News: The Lakers were toast from the start, after Kobe Bryant came down with a stomach ailment that weakened him and after Andrew Bynum missed three early point-blank shots in a matter of seconds Thursday night at Pepsi Center. Now the question is: Do the Lakers have what it takes to win Game 7 on Saturday night at Staples Center? They sure didn't have it during a dispiriting 113-96 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series. "No way I thought what happened tonight was going to happen," Denver coach George Karl said after the Nuggets scored the game's first 13 points, led by as many as 28 in the second half and tied the best-of-7 series at 3-all. The Lakers' inability to match the Nuggets' energy cost them dearly again. Bynum went up for a layup in the opening moments and Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov blocked it. Bynum grabbed the ball and tried again and point guard Ty Lawson blocked it. Bynum rebounded again and then missed a hook shot. The sequence offered a tidy summary on what followed.

  • Geoff Calkins of The Commercial-Appeal: Give Blake Griffin credit. He came up with a pretty good line. Leaving the hallway media scrum after Game 5, he compared the Grizzlies-Clippers series to "The Hunger Games." ... Beating the No. 1 seed as a No. 8 seed was harder. Making the playoffs after devastating injuries to Randolph and Gay was harder, too. The Grizzlies keep saying they're tough-minded. We'll see how tough-minded tonight. The contest at Staples awaits them. The lurid people of Los Angeles will be assembling soon. The DJ is ready to offer more helpful cheering instructions. The backup columnist is poised to call us "dumb" or "hicks." It's not a pretty picture, I realize. But you can take comfort in this: I actually read the book and saw "The Hunger Games" movie. Turns out, the kids from the small market win.

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: In the eyes of Kenyon Martin, it is pretty simple for the Clippers. "We've got to go home and win," Martin said. "It ain't a two-game series for us. It's a one-game series."