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First Cup: Thursday

  • Andrea Adelson of the Orlando Sentinel: "When the Orlando Magic start the NBA Finals tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers, the one man responsible for building this team won't be sitting courtside. No, General Manager Otis Smith probably will be standing in the tunnel near the Magic bench as he does for every game, too nervous to sit and watch. It's symbolic of the Smith way. Quiet and unassuming, Smith prefers to be out of sight. He hates talking about himself, and, quite frankly, he would rather not talk about how far this Magic team has gone this season. Because the ultimate goal is winning an NBA championship. Sure, beating Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals was nice. But Smith wasn't on the podium when the Magic got their trophy Saturday night. Eastern Conference champions aren't remembered. NBA champions? Yes, NBA champions are remembered. 'I haven't won anything, so I'm still average at best,' Smith said. 'My goal is to win a championship. If we haven't done that, we really haven't accomplished anything.' "

  • Ramona Shelburne of the Los Angeles Daily News: "As these NBA Finals begin tonight, the Lakers having returned to the same stage they nervously blinked on a year ago, Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant each have something else at stake. For Jackson, who had never lost in his first nine trips to the Finals, but has since lost twice, it is both another chance to pass Red Auerbach in the NBA's annals, and an opportunity to affirm he can do what he'd previously said was impossible: To coach Bryant, as he had Michael Jordan, to the pinnacle of the sport and his own immense abilities. For Bryant, who won three titles alongside Shaquille O'Neal in his 20s but has never raised the trophy alone, it is a chance to rebut two of the only enduring footnotes at what has otherwise been a brilliant career: That he cannot win without O'Neal, and that he does not trust his teammates enough to make them all champions. The issues loom so large, both men prefer not to acknowledge them. Whatever place they hold in their hearts, or their spirit, is left sheltered and secret."

  • Ian O'Connor of The Record: "They could have chased history together as Jersey Boys, Phil and Kobe, Kobe and Phil. The coach, Phil Jackson, was offered an opportunity to lord over the Nets in 1999. The phenom, Kobe Bryant, likely would've convinced Jackson to accept that offer had Bryant allowed himself to be the Nets' first-round draft choice in 1996. Instead they are nearly 3,000 miles away tonight, a whole nation removed from the rubble of the Nets' roster and a lame-duck building swallowed whole by those ghostly Xanadu cranes. Bryant and Jackson will lead the Lakers against Orlando in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center, and their individual legacies have amped up the stakes. Can Jackson win his 10th championship and break his record-sharing tie with his late antagonist, Red Auerbach? Can Bryant win his fourth championship and his first without Shaquille O'Neal, thereby making a more legitimate claim as a two-guard worthy of occupying Michael Jordan's rare air? Those questions could've been asked and answered in East Rutherford, if only the cruel forces of fate hadn't intervened. The wouldn't-be dynasty began to crumble on June 26, 1996, in the hours before the Nets would select the Lower Merion, Pa., high school star, Bryant, with the eighth overall pick."

  • Kurt Kragthorpe of The Salt Lake Tribune: "A championship for this version of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers would put a wrap on a decade that the franchise began in dominant fashion, only to slightly implode and build itself up again. Conversely, another defeat in the Finals would be shocking enough to undo much of Bryant's recovery. So everything's on the line for him over the next couple of weeks. There are no Celtics or LeBrons to further validate a title for Kobe, but he hardly needs them, either. Overcoming his own recent history would be enough of a career-making achievement."

  • John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News: "Since he won the 'Battle for Los Angeles' and Shaq was shipped to Miami after the 2003-04 season, it's been Bryant's quest to win without the big fella and to silence the critics who say he cannot. The opportunity was there last season, but Bryant's Lakers were taken down hard in six games by the Boston Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The funny thing about sports is how opportunity can quickly turn into an albatross. That's what Bryant faces again against the Magic. Reaching consecutive NBA Finals is an amazing feat, but it becomes a tremendous burden if you don't win."

  • John Canzano of The Oregonian: "When Shaquille O'Neal visited Portland during the regular season, he gave away tickets to the Suns-Blazers game to strangers at a local restaurant. He talks to fans during games. And while his on-court game has slipped, and he's moving slower, he's still an All-Star when it comes to public opinion. He always will be. Before Wednesday, I believed that anyone who wasn't already a Lakers fan had to be rooting for the Magic in the Finals. Now, I wonder how anyone at all can root for the Lakers. Understand. This has nothing to do with the Lakers-Blazers rivalry. It has nothing to do with the dislike of Kobe Bryant by Portlanders. This has nothing to do with geography, or loyalty, or emotion, and everything to do with what's best for the NBA. It isn't just an opportunity for the Magic to beat the Lakers and win a championship. It amounts to a chance for small-market organizations, and one-team towns to dream a little. Rooting for the Lakers amounts to pulling for a bunch of elitists. Bryant is fighting for his reputation. Phil Jackson is seeking to separate himself as the NBA's greatest championship coach of all time. O'Neal? He's already the big winner."

  • Frank Zicarelli of the Toronto Sun: "Finally, the NBA final will tip off tonight in a series that promises to be both competitive and compelling. Hollywood would have preferred the marquee matchup of larger-than-life figures Le-Bron James and Kobe Bryant going up against each other, but any script writer worth his salt would salivate at a Lakers-Magic scenario. What has emerged is an intriguing championship dotted with fascinating matchups between two teams that clearly deserve to be on basketball's grandest stage."

  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: "No matter that Patrick Ewing will be wearing a tailored suit and not a uniform tonight, the 'Big Fella' believes winning a championship as a coach is as satisfying and should quiet his critics who harp on him not owning an NBA championship ring. 'It means a lot,' Ewing told The Post yesterday. 'A player, coach, winning a championship means a lot. That will shut everybody up. Everyone who says I don't have one, it will shut them up
    when I do have one.' In truth, Ewing's presence has been vital in developing Dwight Howard as an inside force. Ewing says Howard will be better than him, if not already. Howard will never have the fadeaway jumper Ewing had, but that's about it. 'Of course,' said Ewing, inducted into the Hall of Fame last September. 'Look at the athleticism he possesses. He's still a young man. Once he incorporates everything, he will be better. He'll be one of the best players to play this game.' "

  • Frank Dell'Apa of The Boston Globe: "Kevin Garnett's recovery from right knee surgery apparently is going well. Garnett expressed optimism in a recent conversation with team owner Wyc Grousbeck, who spoke yesterday at a corporate sponsorship event at the Boston Harbor Hotel. 'I talked to [Garnett] and he guaranteed the championship in 2010 and in 2011,' Grousbeck said. 'He was as fired up as he's ever been.' Doctors removed bone spurs from Garnett's knee May 26. He is expected to be ready for training camp in late September."

  • Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer: "Most NBA teams loathe paying the luxury tax, and that's why the Cavs could make some excellent deals this summer as troubled franchises will be looking to unload big contracts -- like Milwaukee did last season, sending Mo Williams to the Cavs for Joe Smith and Damon Jones. The spending will continue with the new Chinese investors purchasing about 15 percent of the team. While Dan Gilbert stressed that they were buying out a minority owner (David Katzman), the key is when Katzman wanted out, Gilbert didn't have to write a check of more than $50 million for his share. The new investors covered that, leaving the high-ceiling budget for next season in place. 'Dan very much wants to win,' said General Manager Danny Ferry. 'When an idea is mentioned, he starts with a 'Yes,' no matter how expensive. He tries to see how it can work, where some other owners may not be so open to taking a risk. He is open to risk because he knows that can yield a real reward.' Gilbert is doing everything possible to attract and retain talent. The arena is first class. The practice facility is first class. The game presentation (except the blaring volume) is first class. Gilbert has poured more than $25 million into upgrading those operations. The Cavs truly are a first-class organization, the only NBA team to get past the first round of the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. For Cavs fans, these are the good old days."

  • Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee: "One of the more interesting tidbits of information coming out of the pre-draft workouts the last two days in Oakland is word that the agent for Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio is suddenly amenable to participating in interviews and individuals workouts with a select number of teams -- the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Kings. Sources told me that, at this point, Rubio's agent, Dan Fegan, is limiting the visits to the teams with draft picks 2-4. Given the fact that Jrue Holiday and Jonny Flynn are moving up on most mock draft boards, this makes sense. Plus, Rubio didn't play particularly well in his season finale. Holiday is expected to return to Sacramento for a second workout, Tyreke Evans is scheduled to work out here next week, and Flynn shortly thereafter. Since the Kings have been unusually accommodating to the media this year -- in the past, the team refused to reveal which prospects were working out, and allowed no media access to the workouts -- this should be a very interesting few weeks."