First Cup: Tuesday

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph didn’t need to bulldoze defenders and bully his way toward this basket. The lane opened up because of matador defense played by the Sacramento Kings. So Randolph, normally a ground-and-pound punisher, made the middle of the paint his runway, took flight and threw down a two-hand dunk. The Griz haven’t had many highlights over the past week, but they had several Monday night, with the best one the final score: a 97-83 victory in FedExForum. Memphis snapped a three-game losing streak that included convincing losses to San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. “We were desperate for a win,” Randolph said. “We came out and did what we had to do. We came out with the same approach we had against San Antonio. We wanted to play 48 minutes and that’s what we did. It was a team win.” A dry erase board displaying the Western Conference standings at the entrance of the Grizzlies’ locker room illustrated where coach Dave Joerger and his team want to be headed, too. One day after losing their hold on the Southwest Division and No. 2 playoff seed, the Griz moved a half-game back in front of the Houston Rockets for both spots.

  • Jay King of MassLive.com: A famous NBA gambler considers Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens the league's best in-game coach. Haralabos "Bob" Voulgaris might watch -- and critically analyze -- as much basketball as anybody. In 2013, an ESPN profile labeled him "the world's top NBA gambler." He makes a living by watching a ton of basketball, parsing through a heap of data, and determining which bets to take. His claims are backed by evidence and highly respected in the NBA world. And he believes Stevens -- not Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr or anyone else -- tops everyone with his game management skills. ... ESPN recently ranked Stevens the NBA's ninth-best coach -- one spot behind Doc Rivers -- and he might actually be better than that. Last summer, the Celtics hired one heck of a coach.

  • Michael Grange of Sportsnet.ca: James Harden may well be the NBA’s leading MVP candidate. At the very least, he’s on anyone’s shortlist as one of the best in the sport. But if DeMar DeRozan had his way, Harden wasn’t going to build his résumé Monday night. Not in his house, not against the

    Toronto Raptors. It took a career night from DeRozan to do it, but he got it done as a career-best 42 points held off the Rockets in a 99-96 win for the Raptors despite 31 points from Harden. The win, Toronto’s second in a row, improved the Raptors to 44-30 on the season as they head out on a brief, two-game road trip. With eight games remaining, the Raptors have a fighting chance to break the franchise record of 48 wins set last season. As an added bonus, with the win DeRozan earned some bragging rights over his longtime friend and rival. Harden and DeRozan came into the NBA together — taken No. 3 and No. 9 respectively in the 2009 draft — and battled each other on the Los Angeles high school and AAU scene well before that. They were teammates on USA Basketball’s world championship team this past summer. So Monday night was personal, as battles with friends can be.

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: This has become a March Madness all its own, the Lakers sitting perfectly healthy players not because they're preparing for a playoff run but because, um, let's just say it's complicated. The Lakers would never admit it publicly, but their 113-111 overtime victory Monday over the 76ers probably cost them something on lottery night. They moved three games ahead of Philadelphia in the overall standings and are practically locked in as the NBA's fourth-worst team. There is a 16% chance two teams could pass them in the May 19 draft lottery, at which point they would forfeit their first-round pick because of the Steve Nash trade. Had the Lakers fallen below the 76ers in the standings between now and April 15, there would be only a 3% chance of three teams passing them on lottery night. One more stat for lottery gluttons: The team with the third-worst record has a 15.6% chance at winning the No. 1 pick, the fourth-worst team only a 10.4% chance. The present-day Lakers don't care. The victory felt great. Their lottery-laden fans might say otherwise. Coach Byron Scott would gladly debate them. "I don't care about all that stuff," he said. "It's all about us trying to get better as a basketball team and trying to win games. Whatever happens after that happens. We can't control that."

  • Matt Winkeljohn of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Kyle Korver finally fell in love with his mask, which is saying something because he has hated that thing, but the best part of his shift Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks did not come upon the occasions where he said, “it saved me [and his broken nose].” No, the best part of his work came when he pretended like “it” wasn’t there. As he blitzed the Bucks with 11 consecutive points in a span of 65 seconds in the third quarter for his only scores, the Hawks’ shooting guard looked like the pre-All-Star game sniper who put up remarkable shooting numbers. Korver missed his first five shots in the game, and then – with Milwaukee having whittled Atlanta’s lead to five points – he hit a 30-footer with 5:49 left in the period, a 21-footer at the 5:27 mark, and two more long balls at 5:05 and 4:44. ... Korver doesn’t want his nose separated from its moorings again. So, he’ll keep wearing that mask. “I really don’t want to talk about it. I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he said. “I’m grateful for it.”

  • Kerry Eggers of The Portland Tribune: A wag had the best line of the night after the Trail Blazers' 109-86 dismantling of the Phoenix Suns Monday night at the Moda Center. "I knew it was a bad idea to serve wine (in the Suns' locker room) at halftime," the member of the Fourth Estate observed dryly. No, the Suns weren't smashed, but their hopes for victory certainly were during a third quarter in which they were outscored 37-16. The result was a Portland victory that seemed as easy as a Maui sunset, clinching a Western Conference playoff berth for the Blazers (48-25) with still nine regular-season games yet to play. "It was a good way to clinch a playoff spot," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We played well for most of the night. A win like that is always nice to have." But there was no celebration in the Blazer locker room afterward. "Our goals are beyond just making the playoffs," Stotts said. "With our magic number at one, it was inevitable. It's nice to clinch a spot, but we still have a few games to go that are important to us." None more so than Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Clippers come to town. The Clippers (49-25) are riding a seven-game win streak and are a half-game ahead of Portland in the battle for the fourth-best record in the West. When the Blazers clinch the Northwest Division championship -- their magic number is two (Portland wins or Oklahoma City defeats) -- it guarantees them at least the No. 4 seed in the conference. But if the first-round playoff opponent owns a better regular-season record, it will get homecourt advantage.

  • Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune: Flip Saunders was fired up after his team's win over the Jazz last week in Salt Lake City — and not just because of his short-handed squad's play in an overtime victory. Jazz broadcasters Craig Bolerjack and Matt Harpring had discussed the "tanking" in the NBA and mention was made of the Timberwolves dressing only seven healthy players against the Jazz. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, did not broadcast the game that night, so Minnesota fans who tuned in did so via the Utah feed. And after the game, Saunders said he had received some 25 text messages informing him of the conversation. "That's totally irresponsible, we're not tanking games," Saunders said to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and other reporters gathered. "If that's so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking. … We're playing to win. Our guys are out there: We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We're not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that." Bolerjack, however, apparently disagreed that the conversation went too far. And during Saunders' pregame interview Monday night, the Jazz play-by-play man asked the coach if his feelings had changed. "Still feel like the announcers need to be fired, including myself?" Bolerjack asked. "I didn't say you," Saunders replied. "I just said that at ESPN, you do things like that. … You know, we have these [interviews] beforehand, people come and ask us, you know, who we have, who's playing, who's not. So that's why we have this here." "But did you hear the broadcast?" Boljerack asked. "Yeah. I heard the thing. I heard the broadcast. I didn't go back and hear it again," Saunders said. The situation ended amicably.