First Cup: Friday

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Game recognizes game, but rarely so spectacularly. As the champions of the Rockets’ past looked on, the Rockets of present rolled long enough for Hakeem Olajuwon to suggest that they could join them. But just another win would not be sufficient for the occasion. It had to be memorable. It had to be special. So James Harden made an extraordinary night unforgettable. The game could not match the vintage Rockets for drama. Instead, Harden did what he has so often this season, taking it over and providing just what was needed, putting up a career-high 50 points, capped by a last-minute corner 3, to complete a day the Rockets had spent day celebrating their championship teams with a 118-108 win against the Denver Nuggets. Fittingly, the 50-point performance – the ninth in Rockets history – was the first since Olajuwon’s 51 against the Celtics in 1996, when the Rockets that lined the court on Thursday reigned as NBA’s champions as they reigned at Toyota Center on Thursday. “You know what, that’s a special group right there,” Harden said.

  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: Small lineups have quickly become a staple of the Melvin Hunt term as interim head coach down the stretch of the season for the Nuggets. And they've become that for a variety of reasons. First, when he took over, the biggest player on the roster, center Jusuf Nurkic, was on the shelf with an ankle injury. But beyond that, Hunt wanted to get into a quicker, more free-flowing game. So when they've been available, he has generally started Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried as a 6-foot-7 center. "I think it gives the guys a little more confidence in doing what we're wanting to do right now," Hunt said. "We want to open the floor up, and make the defenses constrict, move the basketball, and that small lineup gives us a lot of guys who can create." But does it constitute a full change back to the run-and-gun days of the George Karl era — even beyond this season? "I wouldn't say transitioning back," Hunt said. "I think we were on that course, but when you're developing that process there are some lumps."

  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban commended the Knicks for taking a chance on shooting guard Ricky Ledo in an ironic turn of events, stating he could be “a steal." Cuban waived Ledo following the All-Star break last month to make room for veteran Amar’e Stoudemire, whom the Knicks bought out to save $6.5 million. The Knicks carried that open roster spot until Thursday, when injuries to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early forced team president Phil Jackson into action. The Knicks, who lost, 95-92, in overtime to the Timberwolves on Thursday night, signed the enigmatic but intriguing Ledo to a 10-day contract. Once projected as a late first-round draft pick in 2013, Ledo fell to 43rd — deemed a risky project after being ruled academically ineligible his freshman year at Providence and not getting into a single game. The 22-year-old Ledo spent two seasons with the Mavericks, but appeared in just 16 games. “Ricky deserves to be in the NBA," Cuban stated in an email to The Post. “He is incredibly talented. Because we are trying to compete for a championship, we really weren’t in a position to give him minutes to help his development. I think with playing time he will get better and better and could be a steal for the Knicks."

  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic missed his fifth consecutive game Thursday because of that perpetually hurting ankle, and while coach Flip Saunders wouldn’t call him done for the season, he also predicted Pekovic won’t play any time soon. Remember, 14 games now remain after Thursday’s 95-92 overtime victory over the Knicks. “He’s probably going to be out for a while,” Saunders said of Pekovic, who also missed 31 consecutive games from November to January because of that right ankle. “I’m not going to say we’re going to shut him down for the year because who knows what could happen, but right now I don’t see him playing any time in the immediate future.” Pekovic’s absence Thursday left Saunders threatening to promote small forward Chase Budinger from power forward to center because Gorgui Dieng is the team’s only healthy center now that newly acquired Justin Hamilton is out, too. Rookie Adreian Payne was the Wolves’ only other healthy big man. “I’ve never played center before, anywhere,” the 6-7 Budinger said. Hamilton missed his second consecutive game because of migraine headaches resulting from when he got kneed in the head Monday against Brooklyn. Pekovic, Hamilton, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett and Gary Neal all remained out injured Thursday, as did Anthony Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The Morris twins have been back to starting together for the past two games with less fanfare. It was a novelty when Marcus and Markieff Morris became the first twins to start together in a NBA game on March 8, 2013. They started together Thursday for the 23rd time this season and the 28th time overall. The Suns went 1-4 with them starting together two seasons ago. They did not start together last season but opened this season as starters. Entering Thursday, the Suns were 13-9 when they started this season. Markieff contends it remains an advantage. "I'm always going to feel that way, unless we feel against the Spurs or the Cavs or guys who have been together a long time that understand that," Markieff said.

  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Three years ago, Pelicans shooting guard Eric Gordon made a public proclamation that some fans in New Orleans still hold against him. Gordon claimed his heart was in Phoenix and would accept the Suns' four-year, $58 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent in July of 2012. ... Now, it appears everything has worked out for the best for both franchises and Gordon. On Thursday night, Gordon will be making his first trip back to Phoenix this season when the Pelicans play the Suns in a crucial game that will have an impact on both team's playoff hopes. Admitting he's more mature, Gordon acknowledged for the first time this week that he should have handled things differently than he did three years ago. When asked if he wished he could take back saying Phoenix was where his heart was, Gordon said, "For sure."

  • Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News: The Jazz were oh-so close to being on a 14-game winning streak since the All-Star break going into Thursday night’s game with the Lakers. One of the reasons they weren’t was because of a disappointing loss to the Lakers three weeks ago in Salt Lake when they blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. The other two losses came on that last-second shot at Boston and Wednesday night against Washington when Gordon Hayward’s 3-point try rimmed out with the Jazz down by two in the final seconds. “I know the last time we played the Lakers they beat us," Snyder said. “They played very well. We’ve had a few games like that whether it be a Boston game where we lose on a last-second shot or last night if we hit a shot. Then we would have a longer winning streak." But Snyder looks at the losses in a positive light, saying they help his team grow. “Those things offer you the opportunity for progress as much as any others," he said. “If each of those games can help us become a better team, we'll end up winning more than we lose."

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: The Lakers have been eliminated for the Western Conference playoffs, their season barreling toward the end. But just because the Lakers are having one of the worst seasons in franchise history doesn't mean they can't continue to work hard. Lakers Coach Bryon Scott wouldn't have it any other way from his players. Scott said he has seen a very good effort because his players are working and playing hard and because his staff continues to work and develop their players. "I put a lot on them," Scott said about his players. "They are professionals. They understand that each game is its own separate entity and you got to come ready to play." The Lakers were 17-49 entering Thursday night's game against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. Even with just 16 regular-season games left before they played the Jazz, Scott's coaching staff was on the court before the game running players through drills.

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: I hear the Charlotte Hornets are likely to change their summer-league destination from Las Vegas to Orlando, Fla. The decision might already have been made. I can’t say I’m surprised. Las Vegas has become the dominant NBA summer-league option, with thousands of fans showing up at the two major venues at UNLV’s basketball complex. It’s a great place to network during free-agency in July and even in the summer heat the restaurants and casinos make it a fun 10 days. Also NBATV loves the off-season programming. But it’s gotten too big for its own good. The shift happened when the summer league reinvented itself as a “tournament.” Every team is guaranteed five games, which is pretty much ideal. But teams now go into an elimination tournament that is about as welcome as the old “consolation” game at the Final Four. After about three games teams stop playing their core assets (first-round picks and young veterans) and are ready to head home. You start playing the spares and they have every incentive to win games that are meaningless to anyone but them. Pretty soon the coaches and support staff are wondering what purpose there is hanging out in Las Vegas five days longer than planned. I saw this coming a couple of seasons ago. The Vegas organizers were looking to add tangible stakes to an event that really isn’t about stakes. They over-tinkered and now teams are wondering if this is the best format for glorified scrimmages. Orlando is the other extreme – a small venue, no fans, a tight schedule: Pretty boring but also pretty efficient.