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First Cup: Friday

  • Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: The Clippers might not be a finished product quite yet, but, so far, the prototype is looking pretty good. During the team's 15-game winning streak, teams have left the court humbled, and Thursday at Staples Center was no different. The Clippers led the Boston Celtics by 32 points in the fourth quarter in a 106-77 victory. The victory keeps the Clippers on top of the NBA standings. "The results happen if you prepare the right way and execute the right way," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We got a lot of good effort from a lot of guys tonight." Thursday, the team survived an off shooting night from Chris Paul (3-for-11), as the Clippers' stars spent the fourth quarter where they usually do – on the bench. The Clippers dismantled the Celtics, making Boston look like an old, slow team that was completely out-classed.

  • Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald: Over the years, the Clippers have been a punchline for the stand-up Celtics. With an 84-32 record heading into this latest renewal, the series has largely been a laugh track for the Bostonians. But last night the Celts were the butt of a 106-77 beating. Playing like Christmas dinner leftovers that hadn’t been refrigerated, the Celtics offered a stale outing. Or maybe the younger, more athletic and — certainly at this moment — appreciably better Clippers just made them look that way. The team with the best record in the NBA (23-6) pulled the Celts (14-14) back to .500 with seeming ease, ripping off offensive runs at will and committing just three turnovers in the first half and eight in the game. So much for defensive pressure. “I mean, jeez, they were unbelievable,” Celts coach Doc Rivers said of the Clips, who extended their winning streak to 15 games. “That’s my comment of the day, thank you very much.”

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: On a night that the Thunder found itself in a surprising tussle with the Dallas Mavericks, who thoroughly outplayed OKC for much of the night, Durant stood and delivered a dominant performance his team desperately needed to have any shot of securing its 111-105 overtime victory.But by the final buzzer, all that Durant had done to keep the Thunder within striking distance became lost in yet another action-packed thriller against the Mavs. His final line, however, said it all: 40 points, 13-for-28 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and one steal in 48 minutes, 48 seconds. “Tonight, our energy level was low on both ends of the floor,” Durant said. “We let us missing shots dictate our defense, and we can't do that. We've been having that problem here lately.” Sensing his team headed for another slow start, this one having the potential to send the Thunder to its third straight loss, Durant was as dialed in as he's been all season. Judging by the hustle plays he turned in throughout the night, his will to win Thursday appeared unmatched by anybody else on the court.

  • Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: While Dirk Nowitzki declared Thursday that his surgically repaired right knee is 100 percent healthy, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle noted that the 11-time All-Star forward's minutes are being closely monitored. "But I don't know exactly what it is," Carlisle said, when asked how many minutes Nowitzki is limited to playing. "Some of it is my feel during the game based on communication, based on how it's going. "But there's no set number, as much as everybody would like to have a number that they can go tweet to somebody -- to their followers. You want a number?" Told by one of his listeners that they wanted a number, Carlisle said, "Twenty-four. Give or take six either way." Nowitzki, who played 20 minutes in his season debut Sunday in San Antonio, said his knee is giving him no problems at all.

  • Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register: If Dwight Howard is banking on disproving all that was said about him during his Orlando exit debacle by showing he is a winner as a Laker, he'd better be saving something super special for late in the season. Howard's decisions to ramp up slowly and carefully this season, leaning on excuses from back surgery eight months ago and failing to get his conditioning back in gear, have brought him to this point – where those who really know the NBA know that he is not being great. And if that's not condemnation enough, here's one that will surely sting him: Dwight never wanted to follow in Shaq's footsteps, but he's already following in some of his missteps. The whole idea of biding time now, not wanting to expend too much too early is classic Shaquille O'Neal philosophy. (O'Neal, however, would entertain himself by talking about building up toward playoff time in specific terminology, and to this day I can still picture Shaq's face as he would raise his eyebrows for the word "climax.") … No one laughs and giggles more than the guy who inherited Shaq's old stall in the locker room at Staples and jokes around even more than O'Neal did there. He's the guy who had 28 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks in that Nov. 30 victory over Denver. Or is he? Is he Koufos? Is he Superman? Here's who he is: Healthy enough to get 33 points, 14 rebounds and five assists back in the season's second game ... and two months later, he's the guy who still doesn't have the energy and effort.

  • Andre C. Fernandez of The Miami Herald: The Heat has three games to play during the final four days of 2012. LeBron James will celebrate his 28th birthday on the team’s lone day off Sunday. And quite a December it has been for the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player. James is three more stellar performances from capping one of the best months by an individual player in league history, averaging 26.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists for December. If he can keep the totals above 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for the remainder of the month, James can join Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to post such numbers in a month in the past 45 years. The Heat’s final three games in December are at Detroit (9-22), at Milwaukee (15-12) and at Orlando (12-16). Bird was the last to do it in March of 1987.

  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Timberwolves guard Brandon Roy practiced fully on Thursday, intends to do so again Friday and said there's a chance he could play for the first time since Nov. 9 when Phoenix comes to Target Center on Saturday night. "If everything feels good, I'll talk to Coach and see if Saturday is the day," he said. Roy did 5-on-5 half-court work Thursday and will scrimmage with his teammates Friday in his first consecutive practices since he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee five weeks ago. "These two days are good for me," Roy said. "Today was a good day, so going again tomorrow will just give me the confidence and reassurance that I can go out there and play in the game." Roy last played 15 minutes in a home game against Indiana in the season's fifth game. He experienced discomfort and a "clicking" in the knee before deciding to have exploratory surgery that cleaned up loose fragments. Thursday's practice was his second back with the team.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: In the last five seasons, only five other Rockets have scored so many points in the fourth quarter — Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Von Wafer, Kevin Martin and Toney Douglas — and they did it once each. But with Harden, his was not a sudden or even surprising run. In the past 10 games, Harden has averaged 29.6 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 91.2 percent free-throw shooting. He has topped 20 points in each of those games, having never before put together more than two 20-point games. But more than any of that, he has made subtle adjustments to his role as a go-to scorer, moving the ball more quickly and picking his spots more carefully with the knowledge there will always be more chances; the ball will always find him. “I did not really adjust my game, except to be more efficient in my playmaking while scoring the basketball,” Harden, 23, said. “I’ve always been a playmaker, but I have a lot more opportunities with the ball in my hands to make plays for my entire team for an entire game. A lot more opportunities come with a lot more responsibility.

  • Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: At 399 career wins, Cavs coach Byron Scott is one victory away from becoming the eighth active coach with 400 or more wins. Those ranked ahead of him are George Karl, Rick Adelman, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Scott Skiles and Doug Collins. … Center Anderson Varejao's "Wild Thing Wig Night" will be Friday. He's missed the last four games with a bruised right knee. The Cavs will make a decision on Varejao on Friday at shootaround. He could be a game-time decision. If he plays on Friday, he'll move into a tie with Phil Hubbard for 10th place on the Cavs' all-time list in games played with 469.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: The practice court had all but emptied out, leaving only a couple of assistant coaches and one Indiana Pacers player, D.J. Augustin. He took jump shot after jump shot, assistant coach Dan Burke rebounding the ball and feeding him repeatedly. Augustin has been putting in the extra work to ensure that his demotion to third-string point guard won't happen again. He'll be back in the lineup Friday night, behind starter George Hill when the Pacers face the Phoenix Suns at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Pacers coach Frank Vogel announced earlier this week that Augustin has shown enough in practice and in the two games that he's played that he's ready to return to rotation. Augustin had been replaced in the lineup by Ben Hansbrough more than two weeks ago.

  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Barring a setback Friday morning at the shootaround or any ill after effects from a tough practice on Thursday, Kyle Lowry will make his return to the Raptors lineup this evening when Toronto takes on the New Orleans Hornets. But it will be a very different Raptors team that the point guard rejoins than the one he left. Style of play has changed although the sets remain the same. Perhaps most different of all will be the expectations from his coach and teammates. No longer will individual play be tolerated above team play. It’s going to take some getting used to, that’s obvious. But Casey feels confident that based on the conversations he has had with Lowry and the rest of the team, Lowry’s return won’t rock the boat. The Raptors didn’t solve all their problems in Lowry’s absence, but they did figure out a few things. … Working in Casey’s favor in that regard is the success the team has enjoyed in Lowry’s absence, a level of success Lowry is well aware of. “Guys are playing well, the team’s coming together, they’ve been moving the ball, we won some great games,” Lowry said. “(Wednesday) night we had one bad stretch and it gave one of the best teams in the league the chance to go up but we’ve been playing well, everyone’s been playing together.” He certainly sounds like a guy ready to join the party rather than crash it.

  • Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune: Eric Gordon said Thursday he feels certain there will be no additional knee problems this season stemming from the patellar tendon issues and bone bruise that have sidelined him this year. "I doubt there will be any setbacks from now on, unless I really banged it or something," Gordon said, "but I don't think there will be any setbacks like that. We figured out the problem and we worked on it while I was out in L.A. Things are good. It's all about the conditioning now at this point." As to where he feels his conditioning stands at this point, Gordon said, "I don't know. I think I'll do well during a game, but I don't know if I'll be really huffing and puffing during a game. It's going to be tough. I just want to save my legs for the second half to where I can really try to operate and help the team." When Gordon does return, he understands his minutes will be restricted early on.

  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Cousins maintains he doesn't want to be traded. But two bad coaching experiences could make the center's new agent, Dan Fegan, put pressure on the Kings to get him out of Sacramento. How Smart navigates this will be interesting. It doesn't sound like he'll be devoting inordinate time to Cousins. "You can't tax yourself focusing on one player because you'll get burnt out," Smart said. "You've got other guys you've got to be responsible for also." Smart acknowledges this isn't easy. In sports the more talented players get away with things a player at the end of the bench can't attempt. Smart used the example of a player like Carmelo Anthony being allowed to take shots another player would be benched for attempting. Cousins presents Smart with challenges not just in that area. But it's also in how he interacts with teammates and coaches.

  • Marcus Thompson II of The Oakland Tribune: It's not going to be a marquee game, but Friday's matchup between the Warriors and visiting Philadelphia, for hard-core basketball fans, is certainly a treat. Oracle Arena will feature two of the NBA's burgeoning young point guards in the Warriors' Stephen Curry and the 76ers' Jrue Holiday. The 2009 draft class was highlighted by its wealth of point guards. Of the 11 selected in the first round, Curry and Holiday have risen to the top. This season, both are producing at levels that are garnering All-Star whispers. Denver's Ty Lawson got the biggest contract extension. Minnesota's Ricky Rubio gets most of the buzz. But on the court, Curry and Holiday are becoming the favorites of basketball insiders. Their faceoff at Oracle Arena is a look into the NBA's future at arguably the game's most important position. What makes their matchup so stimulating is that they are noticeably different players. Curry is a sharpshooting scorer whose craftiness and skill has caused problems for opponents. … Holiday, on the other hand, is a prototypical modern point guard. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, he has the size and athleticism scouts love. And at 22 years old, he's just scratching the surface of his development as a floor general.