First Cup: Thursday

  • Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: Yay? One of the most hyped teams in NBA history fell exhaustedly into the playoffs Wednesday. Appropriately, it happened with only three hours left in the season. Fittingly, it was clinched when they were just standing around. Ten minutes before the start of their game with the Houston Rockets, the Lakers learned that the Utah Jazz had lost in Memphis, meaning the Lakers were guaranteed the Western Conference's final playoff spot. There was no announcement. There was no confetti. There was only the live broadcast of the final seconds of Utah's loss blaring on the giant Staples Center scoreboard. Their ticket was punched by the image of Al Jefferson with his face buried in his hands. The Lakers, in the middle of their pregame warmups, barely stirred. The fans, engaged in their pregame texting, barely cheered. Only one person seemed immediately and genuinely excited. You can probably guess. "And to think some said we wouldn't make it," tweeted Kobe Bryant, who added the hashtags #keepcalm, #believe, #makeplayoffs, and #makehistory. The Lakers certainly would make some sort of history simply by getting out of the first round, where their depleted and underachieving team will now play the West's second-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: It was hard for the Spurs to find much encouraging about Wednesday’s 108-95 season-ending loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the AT&T Center, but the return of veteran guard Manu Ginobili was plenty enough. After missing nine games with a strained right hamstring sustained in the first quarter March 29 against the Clippers, Ginobili entered Wednesday’s game with 5:32 remaining in the first period. His presence on the court brought the loudest ovation from the Fan Appreciation Night crowd. It also energized his teammates, and the Spurs played their sharpest basketball while he was in the game. In the 11 minutes and 46 seconds he played, all coming in the first half, the Spurs outscored the Timberwolves by 10 points. “I was a little tired,” Ginobili said. “I’ve been lifting a lot to strengthen the area (of the hamstring injury). Where the tear was felt great. Condition-wise, I only played 12 minutes, but those 12 minutes felt good.” Ginobili went just 1 of 4 and scored two points with two assists, but those statistics didn’t matter to his teammates. What mattered was that he was on the court and in uniform, rather than behind the bench in David Stern-approved business attire.

  • T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times: His team swept the Lakers this season, won a division title and recorded 56 wins in a Western Conference rich with worthy opponents. But there's a feeling within theClippers that the players and the organization could do better with someone else. I'd suggest a psychiatrist. The front office turned sour on Del Negro earlier this season when he chatted with Celtics' boss Danny Ainge about a deal to acquire Kevin Garnett. They felt it wasn't his place to do so. Hard feelings remain. Del Negro also isn't as sold on keeping DeAndre Jordan as the front office is, and so there are grounds for continued conflict. If I knew the name of the team's wallflower general manager, I would tell you. Andy Roeser remains Donald Sterling's top aide, but he's lost much of his influence now that Sterling's son-in-law, Eric Miller, has joined the team in training as possibly Sterling's heir apparent. Too early to say if we're talking upgrade.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: When the Lakers eventually cracked the Rockets defensive double-teams inside, the Rockets bogged down. When Pau Gasol was masterfully playmaking and the Lakers shooters punishing the Rockets for the attention they paid to the Lakers’ big men who had become the focal point of the Los Angeles offense with Kobe Bryant out, the Rockets went one-on-one. When the seventh seed and a first round matchup with the Spurs seemed in sight, the Rockets crashed with one one-on-one misfire after another until the Lakers held on 99-95 in overtime, sending the Rockets regular season to a particularly disheartening defeat. The loss dropped the Rockets to a first-round matchup with the Thunder, pitting James Harden against his former team beginning Sunday in Oklahoma City. Harden, however, said he had not had the time yet to process that, with the concern more about the way he led the Rockets offense down the stretch on Wednesday.

  • John Rohde of The Oklahoman: Kevin Durant's run of three straight NBA scoring titles ended Wednesday morning when he revealed he would sit out that night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Chesapeake Energy Arena. It was a long shot anyway for Durant, who would have had to score 70 points to recapture the lead over new championCarmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks. “I definitely did not want to sit out, but medical staff and coaches thought it'd be a good idea,” Durant said after Wednesday's shootaround. “It would have been fun to try and get it. I don't know if I would have — 70s a lot of points. Who knows? That'd have been cool.” … How close did the scoring race have to be for Brooks to have given Durant his normal minutes in Wednesday's finale? “That's a great question,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, not providing an answer.

  • Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: Why not the Nuggets? Why not now? This is the best opportunity for Denver to win the NBA championship since it joined the league in 1976. Bring the optimism. Dream big. Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson has heard the same tired line, dripping with defeatist attitude, since he entered the NBA in 2009: It's impossible to win a championship in Denver. "Why would I buy into that? I believe that we can win a championship," Lawson said Wednesday. Why not the Nuggets? Why not now? There is every reason to believe the Nuggets will play in the Western Conference finals. In fact, I would guarantee Denver will blow the doors off its first-round opponent, give a proper burial to the golden age of basketball in San Antonio during Round 2 and advance to conference finals against Oklahoma City, except for the fact George Karl turns into Mr. Crankypants when I do his job for him.

  • Marcus Thompson II of The Oakland Tribune: And now it gets real. The Warriors handled business in the regular-season finale, scoring a 99-88 win over the host Blazers on Wednesday. They locked up the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. And point guard Stephen Curry knocked down four from beyond the arc, setting an NBA single-season record for most 3-pointers. Now, Golden State makes its first postseason appearance since 2007. The Warriors will face the No. 3 Denver Nuggets in the first round. Game 1 is Saturday in Denver and Game 2 is Tuesday. The Warriors will host Games 3 and 4 at Oracle Arena on April 26 and 28. "At this point last year, most of us were having the conversation about when we were heading out of town," said forward David Lee, who totaled 20 points and 10 rebounds. "Bags were packed, cars shipped out. So for us, this is really exciting. We know we have a challenge in front of us and we're ready to get started."

  • David J. Neal of The Miami Herald: When the Heat put The Big 3 together, some pundits projected 70-win seasons and the Heat threatening the 1995-96 Chicago regular-season record of 72 wins. As overheated as all that seems now, the Heat did close the third season of the Big 3 era not far from 70 wins despite resting its stars down the stretch. Heat forward Chris Bosh was asked Wednesday morning if there was any disappointment the defending champions didn’t reach 70 wins. Bosh shrugged it off, noting that the Heat started relatively slowly this season as it integrated new players into its rotation.

  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: Jim Boylan used Ekpe Udoh in the starting lineup with Ersan Ilyasova out with a wrist injury. Ilyasova is expected to be ready for the playoffs, but the Bucks didn't want to take any chances with him or center Larry Sanders, who missed his fourth straight game with a sore lower back. Udoh's parents are from Edmond, Okla., and attended the game. He had four points and six rebounds in 24 minutes against the Thunder. Udoh, Gustavo Ayon and Henson are expected to be the primary big men backups in the playoffs against Miami. Asked if veterans Samuel Dalembert and Drew Gooden would have any role in the playoff series, Boylan said, "I don't think so at this point, no." Asked if that was performance-based or some other issue, Boylan said, "No. It's just the way it is; it's just the way it is."

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: In the end, the Indiana Pacers’ first-round playoff opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, isn’t the issue here. The issue is the Pacers themselves, the way they’ve played the past two weeks, the fact they’ve morphed from one of the top defensive teams in the league all season to one of the worst during a stretch of five losses in six games. … If the Pacers play the way they played the first 75 games, they’ll be fine, will advance in five or six games. This is, after all, the team that finished second in the league in points allowed, first in field goal percentage defense, first in 3-point field goal percentage defense and first in rebounding. If the Pacers continue to play like lost souls, they can get run before they know it. The good news that came out of Wednesday night is the Atlanta Hawks will be the first-round opponent, and they figure to be a significantly softer touch than the Chicago Bulls. … There is doubt with this team now. There was none two weeks ago when they came back from a rousing West Coast trip. Now we wonder. The issue isn’t the Atlanta Hawks. The issue is the Indiana Pacers. Simple as that.

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: It will be the Pacers. The Hawks went down to the final day of the regular-season to determine their first-round playoff opponent. They will play the Pacers after slipping to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference with two straight losses, the final being a 98-92 defeat to the Knicks Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Game 1 will be Sunday. The Hawks limp into the postseason, in a manner of speaking, so they won’t limp in the postseason. For the second consecutive game, coach Larry Drew opted to rest his regulars. Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, a group that went 11-5 this season as a starting unit, did not play. Many in the blogosphere accused the Hawks of “tanking” the final two games. However, coach Larry Drew insisted he wanted to give players with nagging injuries extra time to heal and prevent additional issues. “That is always a fear,” Drew said of injuries. “You go through a whole season and you get to a point and it becomes a roll of the dice. Do you play a guy or don’t you? Do you take a chance of somebody getting hurt or don’t you? … We as coaches make decisions and we have to live with them. If things happen, we have to deal with the consequences.”

  • Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: The Celtics realize they are carrying a torch more than ever for their city. The total meaning of that representation simply hasn’t set in yet. “I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re doing in that regard,” said coach Doc Rivers. “Anything we do or anything an individual outside the game does to give somebody comfort I’m all for it. If that’s what this does, I’m all for it.” Courtney Lee, who was a sophomore in high school in Indianapolis at the time of the 9/11 attacks, believes he has a clearer understanding of that meaning now. “As basketball players representing Boston, we definitely want to give the people something to cheer about,” he said. “You can’t replace losses and injuries, but you want to give those people something to take their minds off of it. I feel like with Boston, a big sports town, it will give them something to cheer about. Now I’m in a position where I play for the Boston Celtics, and this happened in Boston,” Lee added. “I’m sure our team will do something to get out and help the community. Lots of people will turn toward sports, and we can give them something to cheer about.”

  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: His tattoos, the hard fouls he delivers and all the facial expressions ranging from disdain and disgust to incredulous, dismissive smiles make people think they know who Kenyon Martin is as a person and a basketball player. He's tough, aggressive and physical. But it's been pride and heart that have made Martin a great late February pickup by the Knicks. He's on a mission to show he shouldn't have been unemployed for so long. "I'm just here to prove to people that I ain't never lost it," said Martin, who was out of basketball until the Knicks signed him. "I'm here to prove what I can do. That's everybody every night. Whoever put that uniform on that's opposite us they're going to see what they're missing." Martin is a confident, strong-willed player who has come back from two microfracture knee surgeries. People close to the 35-year-old veteran power forward say he doesn't get enough credit for his intelligence, and that Martin is a case of a book being judged by its cover.

  • Mike MGraw of the Daily Herald: The Bulls went 3-1 against the Nets this season. What's interesting about that is Brooklyn used the same starting lineup in all four games against the Bulls — Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans and Brook Lopez. The Bulls were always missing at least two regulars. In Brooklyn's lone victory, a 93-89 win on Feb. 1, the Bulls didn't have Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer or Kirk Hinrich. "I don't put a lot of stock in (the regular-season record)," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "They're really good and they're the higher seed. They earned that. I think they play hard. You have Lopez, who's a low-post presence. You have Deron Williams off the dribble, you have Joe Johnson off the dribble, then you have a lot of other guys who are very good basketball players. We have to be ready for them. They're tough. They have size. They have quality depth on that team, so we're going to have to play a complete game. Knowing your opponent well, being ready for that first game, I think that's huge." The last time the Bulls faced the Nets in the playoffs was the 1998 first round when John Calipari was head coach and Jayson Williams and Kendall Gill were key players.

  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: “I thought our guys have done a good job,” interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “They had to handle a coaching change, which is not an easy thing, and I think they’ve played well. They played well on the road. I think we’ve improved, and we’ve got home court, which is significant. “Making the playoffs is significant. Winning the road games they’ve won is significant. But now we have one more to get through, then get through a couple days of practice and then it’s a whole new [season] … [the playoffs] will still color the year more than anything else.” There certainly have been plenty of ups and downs — from the brilliant 11-4 start in November that led to Avery Johnson earning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors, only to lose his job a few weeks later after the Nets went 3-10 to open December. Then, after Carlesimo took over, the Nets had arguably their best win of the season — a victory in Oklahoma City over the defending Western Conference champion Thunder — that propelled them on a seven-game winning streak and a 9-1 start under Carlesimo. … You can even include the two versions of Deron Williams the Nets have seen this season — the one from before the All-Star break who was dealing with ongoing ankle issues, and the slimmer, quicker one from after the break and a round of platelet rich plasma treatment in both ankles that has taken the league by storm over the last 20 games or so.