First Cup: Wednesday

  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: The scoreboard above the Garden floor read "Atlantic Division Champions" and blue T-shirts hung in each player's locker with "Can't Stop NY Knicks 2013 Division Champions" on it. The Knicks buried the Wizards Tuesday night, 120-99, to clinch their first Atlantic Division championship since 1994. It's the first step to what they hope will end in a march through the playoffs and their first NBA title in 40 years. "That was our No. 1 goal, win our division," J.R. Smith said. "Fortunately we did it. It's a great thing to achieve one of your main goals. Now we just got to get that gold ball." The way the Knicks (51-26) are playing, they have emerged as a legitimate threat to the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and the rest of the championship contenders. The Knicks won their 13th straight. Next on their agenda is getting the No. 2 seed in the East, which would give them the home court edge for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. … But a damper was put on the festive mood when Kenyon Martin sprained his left ankle early in the fourth quarter after coming down on Chris Singleton's foot. X-rays were negative. But Mike Woodson called it “'a severe sprain.'”

  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: Jay-Z’s 99 problems won’t include the Nets for much longer. The rap mogul and NBA franchise figurehead plans to sell his small share of the Nets, as reported by Yahoo! Sports, because Shawn Carter wants to elevate his new career as a sports agent. Jay-Z, who recently acquired Robinson Cano as a client in partnership with Creative Artists Agency, has begun the process of obtaining his National Basketball Players Association certification as an agent, reports Yahoo!, which would require him to relinquish ownership of the Nets. Jay-Z reportedly owns just one-fifteenth of 1% of the Nets, but became the central figure in marketing the franchise's move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. The 43-year-old has been a mainstay in the Barclays Center this season, and was the first to model the team's new uniform during a concert in September. … “I would say (Jay-Z) had an enormous amount to do with the re-branding of the team,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said before Tuesday’s game against the 76ers. “I was not close to it at all, but from what I heard and what I read and saw, he was huge — it would be hard to overstate how important he was to the rebranding. So it would be disappointing (if he left the Nets). I would be disappointed. I like his involvement with our team."

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: It could have been the Lakers' darkest hour this season, losing at home to the New Orleans Hornets. So Kobe Bryant brought out his flashlight, flicked it on and shined it directly at the Hornets. Twelve chaotic minutes later, Bryant had taken the Lakers to a 104-96 victory Tuesday at Staples Center. Yes, there is light near the end of the regular season. Barely. Bryant entered the fourth quarter with seven points and finished with 30, pushing the Lakers to their most important victory this season, if only because they moved half a game ahead of Utah for eighth place in the Western Conference. It wasn't the kind of night that inspired confidence for a long Lakers playoff run. Not even close. But if they make it past April 17, they can thank Bryant. As usual. "We have one of the best closers in the game," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's why we could be a dangerous team." The Lakers' cause was helped when Utah (41-38) lost at home to Oklahoma City, 90-80, news that trickled through the arena in the second quarter Tuesday. … Howard said the Lakers hadn't adopted a dour attitude yet. "We smile in the locker room. We're still blessed to be alive," he said. "No need to walk around with frowns on our faces. We know what we need to do as a team, we've just got to go do it." It sure didn't seem that way for three quarters. But the Lakers prevailed, making the playoffs a slightly stronger possibility for them.

  • Phillip B. Wilson of The Indianapolis Star: So that’s what it took to inspire the Indiana Pacers? Frank Vogel getting ejected? His team was going nowhere fast when the coach erupted and exited in the third quarter Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Pacers point guard George Hill said his coach’s first ejection of the season showed how far their leader was willing to go to inject intensity in lackluster players. Indiana improbably woke up and erased a 20-point deficit in the final quarter, much of it on a 17-0 run, then made the key plays at the end for a 99-94 comeback victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers outscored the stunned Cavaliers 35-10 in the final quarter, including 31-6 in the final 8 minutes, 40 seconds. “That don’t mean nothing in the NBA; 20 points can go by like that,” Hill said, snapping his fingers. “As we showed tonight, no lead is safe in the NBA.”

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: Thunder forward Kevin Durant on Tuesday night topped 20 minutes, something he's done in every game this season. Only this time his minute total in the Thunder's game against Utah could have significant implications. According to the ESPN.com blog TrueHoop, no player in the past nine seasons who has played at least 3,000 minutes has gone on to win the NBA championship in that season. Durant entered Tuesday's game 20 minutes shy of the 3,000-minute plateau, prompting Thunder coach Scott Brooksto jokingly tell reporters before the game that he was shutting down Durant for the rest of the year. “Well you guys are going to hear it first,” Brooks said. “Tonight we're going to rest Kevin for the rest of the season. Breaking news.” The last player to win a championship in the same season that he played at least 3,000 minutes was former Detroit centerBen Wallace, according to TrueHoop. Durant's 2,980 minutes played entering Tuesday's games led the league, while his 38.7-minute average ranked second to Chicago forward Luol Deng's 39.2. After playing 37 minutes against the Jazz, Durant now has played 3,017 minutes this season. Brooks, however, doesn't view Durant's major minutes as much of an issue. “He's going to play and he's going to play a lot of minutes,” Brooks said.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: A streaking Mike Conley led the fast break and passed the ball off to Ed Davis for a probable layup. But Davis aborted his shot, flipped the ball by a defender and found Jon Leuer with a nifty pass. Leuer threw down an uncontested dunk, further energizing a crowd that already had been enthralled by the Grizzlies’ bench play. Conley amassed game highs with 20 points and seven assists. But a group of unusual suspects overwhelmed the Charlotte Bobcats, and led the Griz to a 94-75 victory Tuesday night before 16,591 in FedExForum. Credit the Grizzlies’ sudden vigor on defense. The Bobcats experienced a major drought in the fourth quarter. And Leuer couldn’t miss. The little-used Griz forward made all four shots he took, and finished with 11 points and five rebounds. His play epitomized the spark Memphis got from its bench. … Conley tossed in 20 points for a fifth straight game, extending his career-high scoring stretch. He is the only Memphis player to score at least 20 points in five consecutive games this season. The point guard has led the Griz in scoring in 10 of the past 13 games after doing so just seven times in the first 65 games this season.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: For a final few split seconds, the Rockets’ return to the playoffs hung in the air above the rim, as if teasing them with the last shred of uncertainty. Though likely all along, the Rockets were playing to make it official with a win over the Suns and a Jazz loss to the Thunder. But with a final shot to avoid overtime, James Harden’s 3-pointer hit the rim, bounced up and headed back down, seeming certain to fall away and make the Rockets go through at least an extra five minutes before they could take care of the business at hand. Then Suns center Jermaine O’Neal went up to fight off guard Patrick Beverley for the rebound and touched the ball while still in the cylinder. The goaltending after the buzzer counted the basket, lifting the Rockets past the Suns 101-98, and with the Jazz loss to the Thunder, assured their return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. “I actually didn’t think I would be excited,” Jeremy Lin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the six seed.’ Now that it’s really here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs.”

  • Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News: The Warriors are in the playoffs. Only a sourpuss would diminish that achievement. But the Warriors are not going to win the 2013 NBA championship. Only a fool would believe that pipe dream. Thus, for the next few weeks, followers of the team must confront a double-edged sword of giddiness and clearheaded reality. They should be glad to know that Bob Myers, the team's general manager, is waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about 2015 and 2016 as much as about 2013. Not every night. But many nights. "I keep my notebook by my bed," Myers said the other day at his office, "so that I can write down my thoughts and then go back to sleep. Otherwise I couldn't." As an example, Myers recently bolted out of a deep slumber when he suddenly thought of a contract ramification that he'd possibly overlooked, something that might affect the Warriors' salary cap or roster flexibility two years from now. Warriors' fans should rejoice and toss confetti at that story. Over the past 25 years, during those rare stretches when the Warriors might threaten to sustain a winning team, the threat would always end quickly. The front office strategy was grab-bag improvisational theater. The hope was to catch lightning in a bottle. But when lightning was occasionally caught, as with the 2007 "We Believe" team, it was never sustained. The elements were too volatile, too fragile or too obnoxious. The patch-and-fill roster changes would result in a toxic mess. It has become clear that such chaos will be avoided under the regime of owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber -- and especially under Myers, who on April 24 will celebrate his anniversary as G.M. The current Warriors team is clearly a positive step on the path to true and legitimate NBA title contention. But in a recent sit-down session, Myers was refreshingly open about the team's ultimate master plan.

  • David J. Neal of The Miami Herald: Fans will be fortunate to see the Big Two-Thirds, much less the Big 3 during the last six games this season. LeBron James said Tuesday morning he would be a scratch for some of the last six. Dwyane Wade will travel to Washington for Wednesday’s game, but is no lock to play. Center Chris Bosh called in sick Tuesday and could miss Wednesday’s game at Washington, too. “He has flulike symptoms, so unless he gets dramatically better [he won’t travel],” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Tuesday’s game with Milwaukee. “It’s something we talked about. I don’t know if we will bring him around everybody.” Spoelstra said Wade is day-to-day with his knee and ankle injuries. Wade went through Tuesday’s morning shootaround and worked out later in the day. James said he’s “getting back to form” and his hamstring has “reacted well the last few days.” But as for the last six games … “I want to play, but I’m going to go against myself for the first time in my career,” James said.

  • Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: To say it’s been a tumultuous first year in Toronto for Kyle Lowry would be one of the great understatements of the season. He has lurched from starter to backup to starter, working for another new coach with teammates that changed frequently over the course of the season and it’s no surprise that he answers quickly and emphatically when asked what it’s been like. “For me personally? Very frustrating, very disappointing.” And very up and down. When he first arrived at the cost of a lottery draft pick and a spare part, Lowry was famously “given the keys” to a franchise that fully expected him to lead it to the playoffs. He was lauded as a “pit bull” of a defender and a leader, a point guard with scoring skills who would give the Raptors a different look they wanted from their own court leader. It hasn’t actually panned out that way: Lowry’s been criticized by his coach for gambling too much on defence, he was injured and lost his starting job when he got healthy and the team not only floundered terribly at the start of the season, it’s basically limping home in much the same fashion. But Lowry continued a stretch of solid late-season play here on Tuesday night with 13 points and 10 assists as the Raptors stunned the short-handed Chicago Bulls with a 101-98 victory.