First Cup: Friday

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Hawks were not about an opponent back into the game. Not this time. Not with what was at stake. The Hawks started fast and rarely let up in a 113-90 drubbing of the lowly Bobcats Thursday night at Philips Arena. The win gave the Hawks (14-6) a share of first place in the Southeast Division and second place in the Eastern Conference with the Heat. … The Hawks have won 11 of their past 13 games on the way to the top of the standings. They have won seven straight against the Bobcats, including all three meetings this season. One of the Hawks’ last two losses came Monday against the Heat when they had a chance to take over first place. … The Hawks have played back-to-back games four times this season. They are 3-1 in the openers and 4-0 in the finales.

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Having lost 10 in a row, the Charlotte Bobcats have a big one Saturday at home against the Orlando Magic. After that, they head out West for four games in five nights, then play the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. Time to stop the bleeding. Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist committed two fouls in the game’s first 31/2 minutes. I buy what coach Mike Dunlap says that he’d rather have MKG foul out than become passive on defense. However, Kidd-Gilchrist is really the only Bobcat well equipped, from a strength-and-quickness standpoint, to guard Hawks forward Josh Smith. So limiting his minutes with fouls had a clear consequence in the first half. Seems a distant memory that the Bobcats held the Washington Wizards to 76 points and the Minnesota Timberwolves to 87. This was the 11th time in 12 games the Bobcats gave up 100 or more. The Bobcats have now lost seven straight to the Hawks and four of those have been blowouts.

  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian: Has someone ever wrapped up the NBA’s Rookie of the Year before Christmas? If not, the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard is coming pretty darn close. With apologies to Anthony Davis in New Orleans, after what we witnessed here Thursday at the Rose Garden, the race for the league’s top rookie honor is on pace to be over before 2013.In a season already filled with superlatives, Lillard waited until Thursday’s game against one of the best teams in the league, on national television, to showcase his finest work. With an array of drives, dishes and deadly jumpers, Lillard finished with 29 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Blazers beat the mighty San Antonio Spurs 98-90. That it came against a noted point guard like Tony Parker, and against one of the best team defenses around in the Spurs, and on a stage where Charles, Kenny and Reggie could take note, well, that only helps cement what others have been saying for the past month: The kid is legit. Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who called the game for TNT, stopped short of handing the award to Lillard, but as he waited for his Town Car, he left impressed.

  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: The so-called Tim Duncan Rule hasn’t done much to enhance the chances of the Spurs’ captain starting in the Feb. 17 All-Star Game in Houston. Position designations were simplified this season — voters are asked to select three frontcourt players, rather than two forwards and a center. It’s a nod to the confusion about which position has best defined Duncan since the 2003 retirement of Hall of Famer David Robinson. But Duncan is a distant fourth in the first release of voting totals for frontcourt starters in the Western Conference, trailing Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, Clippers power forward Blake Griffin and Lakers center Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Durant, the NBA’s reigning scoring champ, led all Western Conference frontcourt players, with 605,965 votes. Howard, whose 48 percent free-throw shooting has been one of the factors in the Lakers’ 9-14 ? start, drew 434,168 votes. Griffin, the reigning slam dunk champion, has 307,855. Duncan is far back of the leaders at 189,571. Ironically, Duncan’s relatively tepid fourth-place vote total was released a matter of hours after he had one of the best games by any NBA big man this season. On Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, he had 22 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks in a 99-96 loss to the Utah Jazz.

  • Howard Beck of The New York Times: The D’Antonis enjoyed a brief reunion at their Westchester County home Wednesday night, one month after Mike D’Antoni left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. They stayed in. Laurel D’Antoni cooked. Mike caught up with his teenage son, Michael. At least for one evening, D’Antoni had no concerns with being taunted, berated or humiliated. The reception was much less charitable at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. D’Antoni was booed, loudly and passionately, when he was introduced — the price he paid for failing to produce a consistent winner in three-plus seasons with the Knicks and for clashing with Carmelo Anthony. As it happened, that was probably the most pleasant part of D’Antoni’s night. … As the final minutes wound down, fans broke out in a mocking chorus of “Mike D’Antoni.” “Boos are boos,” D’Antoni said afterward. “I didn’t expect anything different. It was a little upsetting that we came out flat again for the 10th time in a row.” The Lakers (9-14) continued their downward spiral, losing their fourth straight game, while the Knicks kept up their early-season rampage, improving to 17-5, the best record in the Eastern Conference. The home-cooked meal proved to be the high point of D’Antoni’s return.

  • Mike Vaccarro of the New York Post: Look: There is Melo, a step past Metta World Peace again, streaking toward the basket, leaping, leaning, lunging … Crashing. “One of them awkward falls,” he will say. Listen: to the silence, as if someone kicked Pete Townsend’s amplifier out of a wall Wednesday night, as if someone knocked over Dave Grohl’s drum kit, as if someone unplugged Alicia Keys’ microphone. This is what a buzz kill sounds like. And what dread looks like. “All you’re thinking,” Raymond Felton said, “is one thing. And that’s: Get up, Melo.’ “ Call it the consequence of wandering too far ahead of yourself, a sobering reminder of just how long the long season really is. How long? At this time last year, the Knicks were still 11 days away from opening day of a 66-game, strike-truncated season. … The diagnosis: sprained left ankle, and the smart money has him sitting out tomorrow’s Garden scrimmage with Cleveland with an eye toward taking part in Monday’s reunion with Jeremy Lin and the Rockets. … The star will survive, and so will the Knicks, and so will the fans who’ve grown accustomed to waiting for the dropped second shoe.

  • Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register: Although Mike D’Antoni is now his Lakers coach, Kobe Bryant on Thursday night ardently defended the cause of Carmelo Anthony, who struggled under and clashed with D’Antoni last season with the Knicks. Bryant, referring to himself and Anthony as “good friends,” criticized the New York media for applying pressure on Anthony and causing him to doubt his shoot-first mentality. Bryant said he counseled Anthony: “I asked him, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing? You’ve got to do what you do best.’ ” How friendly are the two scorers? Bryant once called Anthony on his cell phone after seeing on TV that Anthony got ejected from a game years ago in Denver. Anthony has enjoyed a stellar season under former D’Antoni assistant Mike Woodson, now the Knicks head coach, as New York has started 17-5. Defended by Metta World Peace, Anthony scored 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting in just 23 minutes before spraining his ankle against the Lakers on Thursday night. “Now all you guys celebrate him,” Bryant said to New York reporters after the game. “It’s funny. God bless you guys.”

  • Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: Dwight Howard appeared more defensive than the Lakers demonstrated in recent weeks when he was asked how he's progressed since having back surgery seven months ago. "I wasn't playing until January and I'm playing now," Howard said. "What do you expect?" Howard has averaged 18.4 points and 12.1 rebounds (his lowest since the 2009-10 season). He's shot a career-worst 48.8 percent from the free-throw line. Howard has said in recent weeks he remains at 75-80 percent recovered from back surgery, and wants to improve his timing, explosiveness and conditioning. "I'm not in terrific shape," Howard said. "It takes a while. You try and not play for six months, have back surgery and then come back playing. It's not easy. I'm still working through that."

  • Eric Koreen of the National Post: DeMar DeRozan would prefer that the pace of change slowed dramatically, especially when it comes to Dwane Casey. “It’s important because it’s tough going coach to coach,” DeRozan said. “It was tough last year. Even though we did well on the defensive end, you still struggle at parts. You’re still learning. [Casey] is definitely good for us.” DeRozan is not going to like it, but there is going to be speculation about Casey’s job security — and not only his. With the Raptors at 4-19 heading into their game Friday against Dallas, everybody’s position with the Raptors is on the line, up to and including Casey and president and general manager Bryan Colangelo. And it is difficult to argue that some change does not need to occur. This season has been rife with dysfunction, publicly and privately. In DeRozan’s mind, Casey’s has been one of the saner voices amidst the madness.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: With a sub-.500 record, the Nuggets have issues. Marquee players have been maddening. The team can't make a 3-point shot. Or even a free throw. But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, the road is the road is the road. It's tough out there. Karl is a longtime believer of a stat system created by former Nuggets coach Doug Moe. It's simple: A team receives plus-one for a road win and minus-one for a home loss. With a 5-1 home record and a 6-11 road record, Denver is plus-five, which sounds a lot better than one game under .500. "There are only three to four teams with us in that area," Karl said. Denver's schedule doesn't get friendly, though, until 2013. Five of Denver's next nine games are on the road, including a Christmas game at the Clippers and a back-to-back at Dallas and Memphis. "If you see us at 17-15 on January 1, we'll have a celebration," Karl said. "That's how tough our schedule is."

  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: You will hear considerable hot air over the next few days about the Mavericks and trade speculation. That’s because Saturday is the day when players acquired before the start of this season can be aggregated into trades. For the Mavericks, that’s about half their roster. What that means is before Saturday, those players could only be traded one at a time. The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 21. The Mavericks, according to president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, don’t have anything close to what could be termed hot-and-heavy discussions going on. That makes sense, actually. The team has played well enough, hanging around .500, that it would be prudent to wait until Dirk Nowitzki returns and find out exactly what the Mavericks have before they start deciding fates of players. The hope is Nowitzki returns before New Year’s Day, although no timetable has been made public by the team. If he’s back by then, that would give the Mavericks a month to figure out if this team is a keeper as is or if the roster needs tweaking.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: For the first time since taking over as head coach, Brooks on Thursday spoke candidly about his philosophy regarding his rotations, providing details and insight into the decisions he's made since 2008. “I don't believe you play young players just to play them,” Brooks told The Oklahoman. “I believe you play players that earn minutes. If you build a team where you just get minutes, it demoralizes the rest of the guys. But I never had to worry about that because our youngest players were the best players. But I don't have a problem playing young guys.” Brooks has an undeniable track record of success. He has compiled a 192-129 record, journeyed to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals last season.