First Cup: Tuesday

  • Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star: And yet, the Pacers gutted it out, ugly but effective and in their own gritty fashion. "You gotta win games like that," said coach Frank Vogel. "That's kind of been our trademark here the last couple of years: Win ugly. Certainly we won ugly tonight." They did, but more significant, they did precisely the things polished, championship-minded teams are supposed to do in such circumstances. The Pacers (50-17) mustered vital defensive stops in the fourth quarter and found their range when they needed it. Philadelphia (15-52), despite its greatest efforts, saw its chance slip away in an instant. With the loss, the 76ers have now dropped more games in a row (21) than at any time in franchise history. Then again, even after that sort of win you won't hear many complaints from the Pacers' locker room. They know full well that style points won't win them homecourt advantage in a seven-game series against the Miami Heat. Victories like Monday's will.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: The Thunder responded. That was the story of the game. The Thunder responded well to an embarrassing home loss one night earlier and to a fourth-quarter rally by the Bulls that threatened to end in the same result tonight. Chicago is far from the offensive machine Dallas can be. Still, for the Thunder to hold the Bulls to 24 fewer points, and on the road, and on the second night of a back-to-back, was impressive. It illustrated the Thunder’s commitment to defense tonight. The Thunder held the Bulls to 34.5 percent shooting. The opponent low this season is 34 percent, set by Philadelphia on March 4. A 16-1 run in the fourth quarter was the difference. It turned a one-point lead into a 16-point advantage. But it was the defense that did it. Over that stretch, OKC held Chicago to 0-for-11 shooting with three critical turnovers. The Bulls missed some open looks. But the Thunder’s defense had a lot to do with it. The Thunder shut off the paint and essentially dared the Bulls to take outside shots. Not all of it was by design. Some of the open looks were breakdowns. But either way, the Bulls couldn’t make the Thunder pay from beyond the arc. They missed five 3-pointers during that decisive stretch and six in the final period. Chicago’s other five misses during that 16-1 run came within 10 feet and stemmed from the Thunder swarming to the ball when the Bulls did get inside the paint.

  • Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: It’s not often that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly criticizes his superstar forward, Dirk Nowitzki. Monday, though, was one of those rare occasions. Cuban took time before Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics to tell the media of a conversation he had with Nowitzki earlier in the day. It’s about as critical as Cuban as ever publicly been about Nowitzki. “I think sometimes he loses concentration, and I think we’ve got to get past that,” Cuban said. “I mentioned it to him today. I asked him how his nap was during the game [Sunday at Oklahoma City]. He laughed. At least that’s while I was facing him. When I turned my back and walked away, I don’t know.” ... Asked why he was publicly challenging Nowitzki, Cuban said: “That’s only because I did it already personally.” Dirk always goes through a little slump during the year where he needs to remotivate. And I think we’ve seen that for a couple of games, and I think he’s going to come back stronger, particularly after three days and those naps he’s gotten through the last couple of games.” Cuban said he’s called out Nowitzki before. ... Cuban said he has a rule when it comes to publicly trying to get Nowitzki in check. “I’m allowed to call him out once every 10 years,” Cuban said.

  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets are in the home-stretch of the season and coach Kevin McHale said he thinks things have gone as expected. “I said in October that we would be better in March,” he said. “It’s March and I think we are better.” McHale said that after going through several seasons as a player and now as a coach, he feels like he has a good understanding of what most basketball seasons entail. “You try to keep it all in perspective,” McHale said. “You are going to have good spells and bad spells, dry spells and spells where everything goes in and you feel a lot better about yourself than you should and times where no shots go in and you think you are a lot worse than you are. It’s a long cruise. You gotta get on the ship – there will be some calm waters and some rough waters and things are going to happen but you have to keep on plugging ahead.”

  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: For much of this season, the idea of dunking wasn’t even a consideration for Deron Williams. Playing with a pair of seemingly perpetually sprained ankles, Williams was having trouble staying on the court, let alone dunking over defenders. But that finally changed midway through the fourth quarter of Monday’s 108-95 win, when he rose up over Suns guard Ish Smith. Or did it? “Well, we’re trying to debate if that was a dunk,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said with a smile afterwards. “You have to ask him if that was a dunk. ... I have to go back and look at the tape.” When informed of Kidd’s comments, Williams shook his head in mock disgust. “[Your] coach is supposed to have your back,” he said with a smile.

  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: In the last four days the Nuggets have taken down the Miami Heat and then on Monday, the NBA's hottest team, the L.A. Clippers. The next logical question the players wondered after their 110-100 win at the Pepsi Center was: Why couldn't this happen all year long? It's a complicated answer. But the Nuggets have found a way to play a better brand of basketball this month. They're 5-5 in March after losing all but three of their 12 games in February. The Clippers had won 11 straight games before the Nuggets took them down, powered by a 14-2 run to end the game. "You look at it, we shot ourselves in the foot a lot this season," guard Randy Foye said. "Had a lot of injuries. But everything happens for a reason." ... The Nuggets' third win in their last four games happened for a lot of good reasons. Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson combined for 39 points and 27 rebounds. Defensively, the Nuggets found a way to not allow the Clippers to score in the final 3:31. The Clippers were 0-for-5 from the field to end the game.

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Paul Millsap: The forward has been on a tear since missing five games with a right knee contusion. He is averaging 20.3 points in the past six games, including a game-high 28 points Monday. Millsap scored nine of the Hawks’ last 11 points of the second quarter. He started the third quarter by scoring the team’s first eight points for a run of 17 of 19 points. “I was just being aggressive, attacking the basket and got a few layups and that opened up the 3-point shot,” Millsap said. “I made a few 3’s. More than that, just being aggressive.” The Bobcats, obviously, had trouble defending Millsap. Josh McRoberts drew the majority of the assignment and Millsap took advantage of the mismatch. “Paul is a great player,” Budenholzer said.

  • Harvey Araton of The New York Times: People tend to listen when Phil Jackson talks, or tweets, even in August, traditionally the N.B.A.’s tune-out season. Last summer, while most pro basketball people were lounging on vacation, a bristling Jackson launched a stealth attack by posting three messages during a three-hour span on Twitter, targeting critics of his beloved triangle offense. “Pundits say triangle is passé,” he wrote in one. “Tired of hearing it used as excuse for players. System basketball takes dedicated coaching basic skills.” ... Despite much recent speculation, no one can be certain which offense Jackson will deploy in New York, at least until he is introduced, as expected, as the Knicks’ new president for basketball operations (or some similar title) on Tuesday morning at Madison Square Garden. Jackson could decide that the Knicks’ personnel does not fit the triangle, a free-flowing offensive scheme designed to maximize ball and body movement. But those who thought that Jackson’s return to the franchise he played for in the 1970s, when it won its only two championships, was in the stars might also appreciate that the Knicks’ logo is configured inside a triangle.

  • Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post: The Knicks will surely and rightly reach back to the Nixon Era today, there will be famous George Kalinsky pictures like the one of Jackson playing volleyball on the beach during the ’70 Finals, or the one of Jackson (sans a front tooth) joining Jerry Lucas, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley flashing “We’re No. 1” index fingers in the visitors’ locker room at the Forum after Game 5 in ’73. Good. Celebrate. Rejoice. Reminisce. If you aren’t going to do that on the day you bring one of your old heroes home, you shouldn’t ever do it. And after today, the Knicks shouldn’t ever do it again. Unless they’ve booked an early-morning trip down lower Broadway sometime in the next five years. For now, Jackson’s time as a Knick becomes an official footnote, a trifle of trivia.