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First Cup: Tuesday

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: It's not enough for the Indiana Pacers to win 50-plus games and go deep into the playoffs. It's not enough for them to be a really good team that has a chance to take the Miami Heat to the edge and make them sweat, as they did one year ago. The bar has to be raised higher, an NBA Finals appearance or bust, and there's only one way that's going to happen: Before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, team President Donnie Walsh and general manager Kevin Pritchard must make a season-changing deal. If they maintain the status quo, they can compete and be interesting in the postseason. If they change the team -- add a bench scorer first and foremost -- this team can do some amazing things, like the 2004 Detroit Pistons did when they rode a team of multiple scorers and role players to a title. So here's the deal: Make a deal. Make a couple of deals. They have two needs if they want to go from nice playoff contender to NBA Finals possibility. They need a dynamic scorer off the bench. … They could also use a bit more size at the backup point guard spot, even if that's not as great a crying need as a scorer off the bench.

  • Rick Noland of The Chronicle-Telegram. The earliest it can happen is 17 months from now, but local sports talk radio is already diving into the subject every time it gets tired of discussing the NFL Draft, one of 37 Browns hires, the Super Bowl or Art Modell’s Hall of Fame candidacy. We are talking, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, love him or hate him, about LeBron James’ potential return to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, which is the earliest he can opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat. James can also opt out following the 2014-15 season or play out his contract, which fully expires after the 2015-16 season. The latter would be his 13th season in the league, meaning this conjecture could go on another 3½ years, but all signs point to the 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward becoming a free agent in July 2014. Now, if you had asked me late on the night of July 9, 2010, immediately after “The Decision,” if I thought James would ever play for the Cavs again, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. … But in February 2013, a season and a half before James can elect to test the free-agent market, I think his return to Cleveland is a distinct possibility. It’s not a set-in-stone reality by any means, but a distinct possibility. … For several weeks, I’ve been conducting my own informal survey, and what I’ve found is that the majority of people — say, 60 to 65 percent — are already OK with James coming back. My guess is that as July 2014 grows closer, that percentage will grow higher, though the anti-LeBron faction will also grow louder.

  • Jim Baumbach of Newsday: Looking for the secret behind Tyson Chandler's recent rebounding prowess? The way Knicks coach Mike Woodson sees it, when a 7-footer with Chandler's wingspan plays with as much energy and hustle ashis center has recently, those rebounds are going to pile up. And after a recent stern talk initiated by Woodson, Chandler has been proving his coach's point twentyfold. In Monday night's 99-85 victory over the Detroit Pistons , Chandler grabbed 20 rebounds for the third straight game, a feat that hadn't been accomplished by a Knicks player in more than four decades. The last one to do it was Willis Reed , who had 20, 24 and 25 rebounds in a three-game stretch in December 1969, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That season ended with a championship and with Reed as the Finals MVP, something Chandler can only dream about. "Whenever you're mentioned in the same breath or accomplish records he has, it's a tall task," Chandler said. He credited his recent rebounding surge to a frank talk he had with Woodson in the coach's office last week that "mentally lit a fire under me."

  • Craig Stoufer of the Washington Examiner: John Wall might have let the head-to-head matchup with Eric Bledsoe, his former backcourt partner at Kentucky, get the best of him. In the second quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, Wall dribbled the ball right out of his own hands, a turnover that led to an uncontested Bledsoe dunk at the other end of the court. But just as Wall tried to do too much early, Bledsoe overcompensated late filling in for injured Chris Paul, slipping as he dribbled along the baseline. When the ball found its way to Wall for his own wide open left-handed jam, the Wizards had a 10-point lead, enough to help close out a 98-90 victory before 16,246 at Verizon Center. Even if it came with Blake Griffin on the bench with a sore left hamstring, the Wizards (12-35) ended an eight-game losing streak to the Clippers (34-16) and a four-game skid overall with their fourth win of the season over a division leader. The struggling Clippers lost for the seventh time in nine games. "When we play the way we're capable of playing, we can compete with the top teams," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "These guys have proved it all year, injury or no injury."

  • Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: All season, Erik Spoelstra has spoken of sacrifice. This time, though, the sacrifice wasn’t money or minutes or shots. It was sleep. The Heat’s decision to stay in Toronto to watch the Super Bowl at a local upscale sports bar, while the players’ clear preference, would come at that cost, with the weary travelers not straggling to their homes until nearly 4 a.m. One of those players, LeBron James, had an early wakeup waiting, in order to take his sons to school. So did he rest? “While they were at school, absolutely,” James said. “I had to take advantage of that time while they were gone.” He did, because at night, he would have another responsibility: Putting the Bobcats to bed. They wouldn’t go so quietly in this 99-94 Heat victory, not even after coming into Monday’s contest with a wee five road wins.

  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Remember when the Mavericks were like the big brother in this little I-35 rivalry? No more. The Thunder has grown up. They clearly took the upper hand in the series last year when they skunked the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. After two overtime wins to start this season, the Thunder completely squashed the Mavericks on Monday. “They took a huge step,” Dirk Nowitzki said of the Thunder’s arrival. “They went to the Finals last year, and to me, they were actually the favorites to win it the way they ran through the whole Western Conference. “Obviously, now they’re more experienced. Going through tough times, you learn from losing tough games. They got a really tough team.”

  • Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman: Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Westbrook: “He's one of our leaders, one of our captains. I thought he was good. He plays hard every time.” Effort has never been a question with Westbrook. Keeping his head has been a whole other matter. So, can this last with Westbrook? I have no idea, but for one night, it wasn't stressful to watch him. In fact, it was sort of weird. We're so used to seeing the scowling and the scoffing and the chip-on-the-shoulder wearing that it was a bit off-putting that there was none of it. At one point, Westbrook committed a foul near the top of the key, and when he heard the whistle, he turned to the official and raised his hand. Raised his hand. That might be his first career foul acknowledgment.

  • Tom Moore of phillyBurbs.com: Andrew Bynum doesn’t have a target date to practice with the 76ers or make his debut in a game this season. But Bynum said prior to Monday’s home game against the Magic that he expects to play sometime in February, barring “a bone bruise or something like that.” The earliest it would seem Bynum could be in uniform is Feb. 20 in Minneapolis, which is the first game after the all-star break. As for the Feb. 14-19 break, Bynum said the plan is to go to his home in Los Angeles for the first part and to return to Philadelphia that Sunday or Monday. Bynum has missed the entire 2012-13 campaign due to bone bruises in his both knees. Asked what is keeping him from playing, Bynum replied, “My doctor said it’s fear of a big bone bruise, so we need to nurse it back up to playable conditions without having a setback or creating a bone bruise.”

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Asked about Royce White’s joining the Rockets’ D-League team in a week, several players wished him well but clearly had other things on their minds. “I haven’t really thought about it, honestly,” Chandler Parsons said. “I hope he gets to the point where he can play. I saw him a little bit in college, and he’s a good player and has potential, but you’ve got to put in the work.” Among the Rockets, only Patrick Patterson said he watched the segment on White on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” “Hopefully, he can find his rhythm back, get back on the court and do what he loves to do,” James Harden said.

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: From now until the NBA trade deadline, Josh Smith will be the subject of much discussion and many rumors. He can become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and there’s a chance the Atlanta Hawks will deal him by Feb. 21 just so they won’t be left with nothing come July. But the guess here is that Smith will remain a Hawk as of Feb. 22, and maybe for many years more. For the Hawks to trade Smith now would make sense only if they believe they can receive major long-term assets in return. By shedding Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams last July, they’ve already dumped enough salary to make themselves a major player for free agents. They don’t need to jettison Smith for the sake of cap relief. Indeed, there’s a tangible reason for them to hang on until summer. A free agent’s current team can offer him more money and more contractual seasons than can any outside suitor. Smith has said he feels he’s worth the maximum. The Hawks might agree. Then again, they might not. Danny Ferry, the Hawks’ general manager, offered this boilerplate declaration Monday: “Our focus continues to be on building the Atlanta Hawks, and not just for next seasons but for many seasons.” This would seem to suggest that he’s open to any and all offers but not so desperate he feels a need to do anything anytime soon. … Zach Lowe of Grantland recently examined 10 possible destinations for Smith, Houston being the most likely, before concluding that Smith will wind up re-signing with the Hawks. All things considered, that could be the most profitable course for him.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: "How are you feeling?" a reporter asked, wondering if the lower back pain that caused Randolph to miss a game about two weeks ago might still linger. "I ain't the one to complain," Randolph said. "If it was (hurting) I couldn't tell you." Randolph let loose a hearty laugh. But there isn't much amusing about Randolph's inability to score over the past three games. What's funny — as in odd — is the All Star has missed layups, tip-ins, settled for off-balanced jump shots while fading. The veteran's offensive problems have added up to a three-game stretch in which he's scored a total of 20 points on 9-of-34 shooting (26 percent). This is so funny that Randolph put a stamp on it. "This has probably been the worst slump since 2003 for me," he said. "I don't think I've really played good offensively this whole year. I have my spurts. I've been doing other things." Randolph's sturdy rebounding — he has 42 boards during this mini-offensive funk — indicates that he's not limited physically. Randolph grabbed 19 rebounds last Thursday to offset 4-of-17 shooting in a loss at Oklahoma City. "I've got to calm down and play my game," Randolph said. "Be more focused."

  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: Spurs center Tiago Splitter tries hard not to think about the money. This, he acknowledges, can often be easier said than done. His value boosted by a breakout third NBA season, in a league not exactly known for restraint when it comes to throwing big dollars at tall people, Splitter is poised to enter free agency this summer holding a lottery ticket all but guaranteed to hit the jackpot. So yes, Splitter admits, sometimes he does think about the money. … This is the season the 28-year-old Splitter — the Spurs’ top draft choice in 2007 — solidified himself as an everyday NBA player. Through 49 games, the 6-foot-11 Brazilian is averaging career highs in points (10.2) and rebounds (5.8) and owns the league’s third-best field goal percentage (59.9 percent), while holding down a crucial frontcourt spot next to All-Star Tim Duncan. Splitter’s ascendancy has become a double-edged sword for the Spurs, who must find a way to pay him in a summer when four other players (Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair) also will become free agents. In the final year of his first NBA contract, worth $3.944 million this season, Splitter is set to become a restricted free agent July 1. The Spurs will have the right to match offers from other teams. And make no mistake. Other teams will come calling.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: Seven games. It's funny. During a season, seven games is a small sample size, yet during the postseason, seven games can define a season. Well, in the Nuggets' past seven games, point guard Ty Lawson has put up numbers that mirror those of the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker. Not bad. The long-term goal, though, is for Lawson to be like Parker in seven games in May (or, dare we say, June). "When Ty's playing well," Andre Iguodala said Monday, "we're playing well." In the past seven games, the last six of which Denver has won, Lawson has averaged 20.3 points, 7.4 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 50 percent from the field and 54.2 percent from 3-point range. For the season, the Spurs star and former NBA Finals MVP Parker is averaging 20.1 points and 7.6 assists.

  • Brad Rock of the Deseret News: It wasn't all that long ago that Damian Lillard and Jimmer Fredette were just a skip pass away from each other, one playing at Weber State, the other at BYU. Now they're not in the same solar system. The casual college friends are casual pro opponents, their careers having taken vastly different paths. Lillard, of the Portland Trail Blazers, is on track to become the league's Rookie of the Year. Fredette isn't even sure whether to unpack. His Sacramento Kings, who lost 98-91 in overtime to the Jazz on Monday, are the most unsettled team in the NBA. Most reports have them moving to Seattle next season. "We don't worry too much, don't talk about it, we don't listen to what's going on, we just worry about what we're doing on basketball floor," Fredette said. "That's all we can control now. We have no idea what's going on behind scenes or anything, we just focus on a game-to-game basis." That part isn't going terribly well, either. The loss to the Jazz was their 13th loss in their last 17 games. … Two years ago, Fredette was the college player of the year, Lillard a modestly noted guard at Weber. But now Lillard is drawing rave reviews. In two games against Portland this year, Fredette has scored 14 points and played 38 minutes. In those games Lillard scored 32 points and played 74 minutes. Overall Lillard is averaging 39 minutes a game, Fredette 14.

  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Seven-year veteran Lou Amundson has been around long enough to know how the NBA works, to know that by Friday he could be traded or waived so the Timberwolves can resign Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson for the rest of the season. His agent has been talking to other teams about a possible trade, and Amundson in turn has been talking to his agent about whether the Wolves can deal him to a playoff contender for a protected second-round pick or if they'll waive him to clear a roster spot the Wolves will need if they intend to keep both players. "It's a business, so you have to think ahead with that stuff," Amundson said. "Everything's on the table right now. You never like to get traded, but sometimes the situation isn't what you hope it to be, and so it can work out for the best sometimes." Amundson, 30, was signed just before training camp to a one-year veteran's minimum contract. He has sat out 17 of the past 27 games before Monday's game against Portland.

  • Gary Dzen of The Boston Globe: Will this all continue? Only heaven knows. Between now and the Feb. 21 trading deadline, Danny Ainge certainly has some decisions to make, as it pertains to this season and beyond. According to a Sporting News report on Sunday, the Clippers are interested in acquiring Garnett for package that included Eric Bledsoe and the 32-year-old Caron Butler, and trading Garnett is one of the many scenarios Ainge must consider. The Celtics simply do not have any untouchables on their roster, though that has been true for years, not weeks or months. What the last week should confirm for all of us, beyond a doubt, is that Rondo is hardly untouchable, too. If you couldn't see that before, you should certainly see it now.

  • Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News: The Clippers reportedly are dangling point guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Caron Butler for the 37-year-old Garnett, who has two more years on his contract beyond this season worth $23 million. Bledsoe has enough on his hands trying to hold things down until Paul returns from his knee injury - that included playing the entire second half Sunday against the Celtics - let alone worry about trade rumors. "I'm just focused on the Washington Wizards," Bledsoe said before Monday's game. "Just focused on the Wizards and trying to get back on a winning track." It was a clever way of downplaying the reports, but the reality is Bledsoe knows full well his name is out there in trade talks. To deal with it, he boils his focal point down to the most minimal element. "It's what I can control," Bledsoe said. "So I'll focus on the Wizards and trying to get back on the winning track." Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said trade talk isn't an issue and most of the rumors being bandied about have little validity. "Most of (what's reported) isn't accurate," Del Negro said.