First Cup: Friday

  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: The reigning league MVP and the reigning Finals MVP were both rocking suit jackets. Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard didn’t play. So these two teams certainly weren’t the full-throttle title-contenders we expect to see come May. But considering all the circumstances, this stands as the Thunder’s best win of the season to date. There’s not a ton of competition — most of the solid victories came with an asterisk (the LeBron-less Cavs) — but this one was extremely impressive. In San Antonio on Christmas Day with little help from the bench, Russell Westbrook led a furious mid-game run and a frantic late-game push to close out a Spurs team that generally played a pretty good game. It was the opposite of the last two fourth quarter collapses, with the Thunder executing beautifully down the stretch, outscoring San Antonio 28-15 in the final seven minutes. In the grand scheme of a marathon season, it’s just one win — like the recent homestand was just two losses. But it should give OKC a boost of confidence and some potential momentum. Plus, at least temporarily, it should ease the concerns of a simmering fanbase.

  • Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News: Sidelined all season after right shoulder surgery, Spurs backup point guard Patty Mills believes he will be back on the court much sooner than anyone anticipated. Mills had surgery in early July to repair a torn right rotator cuff, after which doctors projected a mid-January return to action. Cleared to begin full contact, five-on-five practice, he now thinks he might be able to play in one of the four remaining games this month. “Mid-January had been (projected) all the way through,” Mills said, “but as I’ve progressed it’s end of December now.” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will take some convincing before he allows Mills to play again. “I’m going to hold him off as long as I can,” Popovich said. “There will be a point he won’t allow me to do that any more and that’s fine. But for right now I’m winning the battle. At some point I’ll lose it.” Popovich said he wants to see Mills “get knocked around” in some five-on-five scrimmage sessions to get a better feel for his ability to handle contact.

  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: The Heat won. Miami did, too. Team and city, players and fans. Win, win. A half-year of speculation and debate had funneled into Thursday’s much-anticipated Christmas Day basketball game at the downtown bayside arena — ever since LeBron James left the Heat last summerto return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Would he be loudly booed as a traitor or welcomed back appreciatively as a favorite son? Would Miami fans be naughty or nice to their departed superstar upon his first return? The game itself was secondary, though exhilarating. The Heat would beat the Cavaliers 101-91 led by Dwyane Wade’s 31 points and Luol Deng’s 25, and despite the injury-absence of Chris Bosh. It continued a strange season that left Wade noting Thursday night how the team still was searching for its “identity.” Miami still is only 14-16 and only 6-10 at home, and the previous game had lost to lowly Philadelphia. Clearly, LeBron inspired a different level of play from the Heat. “He is going to bring out the best in you,” said Wade. James scored 30, and it was fun watching the two old friends trade examples of brilliance. The story of the night, though, what made it a holiday event, wasn’t so much about beating Cleveland as it was about how Miami — fans and franchise — raised its game in welcoming back James. Cheering for LeBron overwhelmed booing as he was announced in pregame introductions, but that was fleeting. No effort was made to call James’ name louder, or last.

  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: In his first attempt at replacing Anderson Varejao in the starting lineup, Cavs coach David Blatt called a reverse. He went back to Shawn Marion in the starting lineup after it was widely assumed Tristan Thompson would slide in at center. Marion defended Dwyane Wade for long stretches at guard, leaving Mike Miller to pick up Heat power forward Shawne Williams while shifting Kevin Love to center. It was a surprise move, but Blatt insisted Thursday the Cavs would play the matchups in the short term. He hinted more changes could be made before the Cavs play at the Orlando Magic on Friday. “We tried some things and we may try some things differently,” Blatt said. “When you lose a guy like Andy, you’ve gotta try to figure it out. I wouldn’t say it went particularly well for us today but hopefully tomorrow it will go better, possibly with changes.” Love’s start at center came less than an hour after Blatt said he didn’t think Love moving to center was a long-term solution for this team.

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Even as he tried to convince Pau Gasol to remain with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant assured Gasol his support would remain. So when the Lakers arrived in Chicago late Wednesday, Bryant's dinner plans were set. "Our relationship and bond goes beyond basketball," said Bryant, who spent "several hours of reminiscing" with Gasol. "As a brother, we started this rebuilding process together. He's a part of this (Lakers) franchise. It was tough for him to leave what he helped build. And it was tough for me to see him go." Bryant isn't surprised by Gasol's success with the Bulls. "Pau has been playing like Pau," Bryant said. "It's phenomenal. He's been in the league for a while and seems to have no drop in his play. He looks healthy and strong and moving very well."

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: This being Chicago, reporters were eager to talk to Bryant about passing Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Bryant even revealed what Jordan told him in a conversation after it happened last week. "Go get Karl," Bryant said. He trails Karl Malone by 4,563 points. "The competitor never stops," Bryant said while elaborating on Jordan's revelation. "He's always thinking the next challenge."

  • Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times: Will the Clippers zig next, or will they zag? Will they take off on a winning streak or continue to go sideways, getting little scoring from their second unit and inconsistent defensive efforts throughout the lineup? One win doesn't solve all of their problems, even if it was an entertaining and improbable victory over the league-leading Warriors (23-5). Jamal Crawford was the Clippers' only effective player off the bench Thursday — once again — as he scored a game-high 24 points. And they still have work to do defensively, even though they held Golden State to its lowest point total this season. But this was fun, more amusing even than Spencer Hawes' specially made red-white-and-green Christmas tree blazer and comically short pants, the kind of emotional win a nicked-up, road-weary team needed to lift its spirits in the middle of a tough schedule. ... Sometimes, teams come together quickly. Other times, they need 20 or 30 or more games to bond and find their footing. ... On Thursday, they rode it to a win that made for great drama. Whether it starts another zig-zag, this time upward, will be up to the Clippers the next few games.

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: The Warriors learned firsthand just how difficult it is to beat the Clippers without Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli during last season’s first-round playoff series. That trend continued Thursday night at Staples Center, where the Warriors ran out of big bodies and the necessary intensity to deal with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and lost 100-86 in a Pacific Division matchup that acted as the nightcap to the NBA’s star-studded slate of games on Christmas. ... Bogut missed his eighth straight game as he continues therapy for his injured right knee, and Ezeli sat out with a sprained left ankle. He’s scheduled for an MRI exam Friday after X-rays were negative. With Marreese Speights starting, Green giving up size and athleticism, and David Lee working his way back from a left hamstring strain, the Warriors willed a solid defensive effort in the first half, but they simply didn’t play with the urgency and edge needed to compete with the most dynamic big-man duo in the league during the second.

  • J. Michael of CSN Washington: With great joy, Paul Pierce stood up from the bench late in the fourth quarter, turned to the crowd and Madison Square Garden and shouted, "Christmas is cancelled." His teammate, John Wall, had been decked by Quincy Acy on a flagrant foul which led to a skirmish as the Knicks forward was ejected Thursday. A two-game losing streak over with the 102-91 victory, the Wizards (20-8) were in a joyous mood despite testy ending with 5:31 left in the game. ... Wall and Acy have a long history. They played against each other on the AAU circuit but there wasn't any bad blood between them. Wall, who left Kentucky after one season to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Wizards in 2010, also took a recruiting trip to Baylor with Acy who attended there before becoming a second-round pick in 2012. "That’s basketball. He was the one that got ejected and John wasn’t. That happens," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "Physical game sometimes leads to that and I thought our guys for the most part kept their composure through something like that. You never know what happens after something like that." The last time the Wizards had anything close to this was their first preseason game, Oct. 6, vs. Chicago.

  • Harvey Araton of The New York Times: “You’re seeing deeper teams in this league — you know, more team play,” Paul Pierce continued. “You’re seeing guys who were starters on other teams coming off the bench. You’re not just seeing one guy score all the points." That obvious dig at Anthony was underscored when the Wizards, with five players contributing at least 8 points but no one recording more than 11, scored 60 in the first half for a 16-point lead. Anthony had 21 points in the half for the bewildered Knicks, but nobody else scored more than 5. Voluntarily tethered to a team he couldn’t have imagined would have the league’s most losses at this point in the season, Anthony has become the leading candidate to be considered the most aggrieved $100 million player. He didn’t re-sign for a steadily improving shot at the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, even if that now represents the best and perhaps only foreseeable hope for a reversal of fortune. The Knicks’ president, Phil Jackson, attended Thursday’s game, but he delivered his holiday cheer over Twitter. “Please be assured your hopes and wishes are getting through to Santa,” he wrote. “He will bring a better 2015 than 14. The effort and skill of our team will grow as the players learn how to play with and for each other.” ... Even on Christmas, and on a first-name basis, it was obvious yet again that these Knicks have no feel or great love for one another. Whatever Jackson promised on Twitter, the stark reality is that his team is nowhere near where the N.B.A. is trending.