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First Cup: Monday

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Hardly two minutes into their game Sunday evening is when Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley trotted down court and waved an open hand from side to side. Turn five. The play called for center Marc Gasol to get the ball in the post and go to work. And that’s exactly what Gasol did. He drove along the baseline and beat the defender to score a reverse layup. Gasol rumbled through the lane and threw down a slam dunk soon after. Gasol powered the Griz early and then forward Zach Randolph punished the Sacramento Kings for using a small lineup late. It was the second straight game that the Griz were propelled by their inside game — this time, in a 97-86 victory at Sleep Train Arena. So it should come as no surprise that the Griz won consecutive games for the first time this season. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be,” Conley said of his 5-5 squad, “but we’re going in the right direction.”

  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Figuring what to expect from the Kings game-to-game is not easy (the understatement of the day, I know). How the Kings continue to play with a lack of urgency is befuddling. They did so again this afternoon in losing to the Memphis Grizzlies, 97-86, at Sleep Train Arena. Perhaps it's a case of old habits dying slow. Or maybe this is just who the Kings are - a team with unpredictable levels of effort and focus - and that won't change unless players change. There was talk of changing the culture postgame, and how much work that takes. The work will begin to take hold when the Kings realize they have to hold themselves accountable and not accept subpar effort from themselves and teammates. "As a group, as a unit, as a team, we've just got to get tired of losing," said forward John Salmons.

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni downplayed Kobe Bryant's activity level in Saturday's practice, saying it was too early to tie it to an official return from a torn Achilles' tendon. Bryant had been sidelined since mid-April but returned to the practice court for some drills Saturday and light shooting Sunday. “I know we're all excited, everybody's excited, and I'm sure he's excited, but [it's] a little bit premature right now,” D'Antoni said Sunday. “You're dealing with, ‘Is he sore today? Is there a setback tomorrow?' That's the first step and there's a lot of steps to be taken, so I just think we need to be cautious. We just better be cool and chill out a little bit.” Saturday's practice was closed to reporters, but Bryant “surprised most people” and did some jumping but no dunking, D'Antoni said. “Two 360s and threw the ball off the side of the wall and dunked one time,” D'Antoni joked. ... The Lakers have an unusually easy schedule coming up, with no games until Friday against Golden State. They won't practice Monday and scheduled practices the following three days. Bryant would take part in “certain areas” of practice, D'Antoni said without offering specifics.

  • Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News: Billups’ recent left knee tendinitis, which has been termed “day to day” by the team, will likely cause the Pistons and Billups to take a more cautious approach rather than just rush him back as soon as he’s able. “We won’t rush him back, we need to get him to the place where he’s capable of playing, at the level he’s capable of playing,” Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said. “Whoever gets hurt, you have to take your time so you can contribute.” It’s been clear that Billups has been a step slow, even by his deliberate standards, as evidenced by his having to chase Golden State’s Klay Thompson around in the first half of Tuesday’s game in Oakland. “I thought it would subside with time but it didn’t and it was kind of rough out there, trying to play with it,” Billups said. “I’m day to day. Other than that, I feel good. It’s just mild, that’s all.” ... Cheeks clearly happy with the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rodney Stuckey combo at shooting guard, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Billups sit for a few games, even after he’s physically ready.

  • Joel Odom of The Oregonian: LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard scored 25 points each, and Nicolas Batum hit consecutive three-pointers in overtime as the Trail Blazers finally handled the Raptors 118-110 in a Sunday matinee in Toronto. The Blazers (8-2) won their sixth consecutive game, although they didn't make it easy on themselves. ... The Blazers' six-game winning streak is their longest since they won six in a row in February 2011. Portland also is 4-1 in road games this season, with two away games left on their current four-game trip: Monday at Brooklyn and Wednesday at Milwaukee. ... Aldridge recorded his fifth consecutive double-double, pulling down 11 rebounds to go with his 25 points. He also added four assists and two steals. The Blazers are 8-0 this season when Aldridge finishes with more than five rebounds. ... Mo Williams continued his strong play of late, scoring 13 points and pitching in seven assists off the bench.

  • Eric Koreen of the National Post: The Toronto Raptors’ season is only 11 games old, but it seems like the same question has been broached endlessly already: Should the team disassemble its core and try to get a high draft pick, or should it make a push for its first playoff trip in six years. However, a second question could emerge, now that several Eastern Conference teams, the Raptors included, are off to middling starts. That question would be: Is a playoff spot in this conference really a worthwhile goal? Following the Raptors’ 118-110 overtime loss to Portland on Sunday, only four teams in the East are better than .500, with another one right on the mark. Of the six teams expected to battle for the last few playoff spots in the conference, only Atlanta is off to a decent start. The Raptors and Pistons have been middling, while the Bucks, Wizards and Cavaliers (with the same 4-7 record as Toronto, but the third-worst point differential in the league) are in varying states of disarray. The two assumed powers from New York are struggling, too.

  • Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post: Upon further review, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw was glad Dwight Howard hit the free throws. Deep inside, Shaw hates the Hack-a-Howard strategy anyway. But down big in the fourth and already in the penalty, Shaw bowed to temptation and ordered his players to foul at will on the Rockets star center, who entered the game shooting a paltry 49 percent from the line. And Howard rose to the occasion. The Rockets center fouled time after time in the fourth quarter and made good on 14-of-20 of them. “That goes against everything that I’m about,” Shaw said. “I even think you guys asked me that before the game, if I would resort to that, and I don’t believe in that, I don’t think it’s in the spirit of the game. So that is exactly what I get for doing that. I’m glad he made his free throws. It shows me to just be true to who you are.”

  • Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: Ever since LeBron James called out his team for its poor play, James has scored at least 30 points in every game while shooting 70.2 percent from the field, 62.5 percent from three-point range and 81 percent from the free-throw line. In other words, the back-to-back MVP is leading by example. “It was great to see us coming out [Saturday] with a lot of energy despite playing a close game [Friday] and flying in from Miami,” James said. After the Heat’s loss to the Boston Celtics on Nov.‚ÄČ9, James admonished his team for “playing like [expletive] defensively.” The Heat has responded. In the past three games, Miami (7-3) is outscoring its opponents by an average of 15 points per game while holding them to 41.9 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from three-point range. James pointed out after Saturday’s dominating victory against the Bobcats that one of the Heat’s goals is to “continue to get our defensive rankings up.”

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: Well after the Warriors' 102-88 victory Saturday night, two of the team's top decision-makers stood deep inside Oracle Arena and discussed how to replace injured Jermaine O'Neal. The conversation got so extreme that they entertained asking assistant coach Brian Scalabrine to come out of retirement to fill the void. It's not that the Warriors don't have options to take the backup center's place. It's just that it's nearly impossible for a single player to do everything the 35-year-old was doing for the team. O'Neal, who was initially diagnosed with a sprained right knee and strained right groin before additional tests late Sunday afternoon, has been a steady defensive anchor on the second unit and the team's most proven scorer from the low post. More importantly, since signing a free-agent deal in the summer and arriving in Oakland before his 18th NBA season, the six-time All-Star's voice and experience have provided his younger teammates with a different focus level, toughness and mind-set than they've ever known.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: After several days in which center Omer Asik was “not available,” the Rockets believe he will be part of Monday’s practice and in uniform for Tuesday’s game against the Boston Celtics at Toyota Center. Asik has not played the past two games and was not on the bench in Saturday’s game after his frustration with his diminished role on last week’s road trip led to him to say he was not ready to play and to ask that he be traded. In the team’s daily meeting Thursday in New York, coach Kevin McHale spoke about players stepping up to contribute in any way possible after a tough overtime loss in Philadelphia in which Asik played just four minutes, according to an individual with knowledge of the meeting. Several players, particularly Pat Beverley and Chandler Parsons, spoke. At one point, McHale asked center Greg Smith if he was ready. Smith said he was, and McHale then asked Asik if he was ready to play that night. According to the person familiar with the conversation, Asik said he would not be ready to play that night and soon met with his agent. McHale, general manager Daryl Morey and several players have spoken with Asik in the days since the meeting, with Asik indicating he intended to return to practice.