First Cup: Monday

  • Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: "The Knicks are a .500 team in their last 14 games, 6-3 since Nate Robinson was benched and 2-0 with Jonathan Bender getting playing time. 'The fact that he's back is amazing, it's really amazing,' said Ron Artest, who played five seasons with Bender in Indiana. 'When he left Indiana, I thought he was done. I never thought he'd be able to come back.' Maybe Eddy Curry should consider taking three years off and then making a comeback. That approach has worked well for Bender, the former high school phenom whom Donnie Walsh made a first-round pick in Indiana and who was said to be Larry Bird's greatest nemesis in games of H-O-R-S-E before seeing his NBA career ruined by knee injuries. Sunday night, Bender scored 11 points in 14:42 and basically was the entire Knicks offense for the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. 'I'm like Ron, I never thought he'd be back, either,' said Charlotte's Stephen Jackson, who played two seasons in Indiana with Bender. 'It's unbelievable to see him out there.' "

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: "The Griz certainly wouldn’t have been in the winner’s seat without Zach Randolph’s 32 points and career-high 24 rebounds powering them past the Denver Nuggets, 102-96, before an announced crowd of 13,385. 'I knew he’d be good. I had no idea it would be like this,' Griz point guard Mike Conley said. 'Shockingly, people here were down on him. But he’s 100 percent different than what people thought.' Even Randolph seemed baffled by the skepticism upon his arrival. Now, he doesn’t understand the hoopla over his sturdy play. He’s always contended his impact is explained by the numbers. Against the Nuggets, Randolph’s rebounding total was an NBA season-high, eclipsing the 23 boards Orlando’s Dwight Howard grabbed against Indiana last week."

  • Terry Foster of The Detroit News: "The two showed no ill will when they greeted each other Sunday before the Lakers' 93-81 victory at The Palace, but there's still tension and bad blood between the two. You could still see it in Ron Artest, who wants to fight Ben Wallace in a charity boxing match to raise money for the Detroit projects. Artest, 30, envisions a large pay-per-view bout after both men have retired. He respects Wallace, but when asked if he dislikes him, Artest wouldn't answer. 'I will let you answer that,' Artest said. 'I'll leave that to public opinion.' When asked what he thought of Wallace as a player, Artest replied: 'I think he worked for what he got -- not highly skilled offensively but can pass the ball. You add heart and some athletic ability and you take advantage of all that and you've got Ben Wallace.' Wallace laughed at the notion of a boxing match, and doesn't even think of hurting Artest. 'I am too old for that,' Wallace said.

  • Vincent Goodwill Special to the Daily News: "Lakers forward Lamar Odom knows his team is known as much for controversy as the Staples Center is known for Jack Nicholson's courtside seat. That said, Phil Jackson's recent comments about winning the title and money being major factors in deciding whether he'd come back next year didn't resonate with Odom. In fact, he didn't even know about them. 'We're a high-profile team, it's not about controversy,' said the 10th-year forward after Sunday's win over Detroit. 'We know how to deal with issues, no matter what they may be.' ... Jackson didn't revisit his comments after the game, and Lakers forward Pau Gasol believes its all media-driven. 'There's always something going around us, something going on,' he said. 'It must be tough for the media, trying to find something interesting.' "

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: "The Nuggets' starting lineup is a machine of five moving parts, and this month, Denver has proven that without just one of those parts, the machine malfunctions. Denver lost its second consecutive game without Chauncey Billups (groin); and earlier this month, Denver lost both games Kenyon Martin missed with his pinkie injury. Last season, Denver's bench was a feel-good story. But this season, it's becoming increasingly clear that it needs a key reserve off the bench. 'We definitely could use somebody else,' said forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored a game-high 41 points. 'At this point, anytime you have an injured player, anybody who can step up off the bench is huge.' The Nuggets' front office is looking into acquiring a big man who could play some minutes off the bench. But right now, the Nuggets just aren't the same without all five starters. Billups is shooting for a return in the next game, Wednesday at home against Atlanta."

  • Israel Gutierrez of The Miami Herald: "Everyone who has seen Wade play more than once is trying to figure out why, exactly, a player in his prime with an improving team around him is having the worst shooting season of his life. The scientists are coming from his own front office (that would be Pat Riley) and national and local experts alike, all of them attempting to devise the perfect theory for the most unusual development in what has been an otherwise predictable season. Everyone seemed to have settled on the conditioning theory, because it seems to make the most sense. This season, Wade is not coming off an Olympic run, and he is not coming off a summer where he built his legs back up from scratch, and he is not playing with as much to prove as he did last season, when he led the league in scoring and was third in MVP voting. Everyone has settled on that theory -- except Wade. And shouldn't he know better than anyone? 'I wish I knew,' Wade said, which pretty much tells you he doesn't agree with Riley's assessment. 'If I could put my finger on it, I would do everything in my power to make sure it's not like that. Everyone has their own assessment of you. When the ball's going into the basket and you're getting wins, everything's perfect. When you're not, then you start analyzing and looking at things. You know, I don't really care what people say.' "

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: "The Suns are not going to advance in the playoffs without the ability to play up to the level of good teams. They also proved they will not be in the playoffs without faring decently against the NBA's better half. The Suns missed last season's playoffs after going 15-28 against teams that finished .500 or better. Monday night's game at US Airways Center offers a large reminder of that failure. It's large in the form of Shaquille O'Neal, making his first return since the Suns traded him in June. It's large in that Cleveland is a top team by which to gauge the Suns' true standing among the NBA's elite eight. This season, Phoenix (18-9) is a respectable 5-7 against teams with current winning records. Only two of those games were at home, where they beat Orlando and San Antonio during a 19-game win streak."

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "With no fat to trim, the Rockets were getting thinner. Carl Landry had spent nearly five hours in the dentist's chair and was out, removing the Rockets' fourth-quarter hammer from the mix. Chase Budinger left the game with a sprained right ankle, putting him out for two to three weeks. Tracy McGrady's first-half cameo was over. The Rockets, however, had a plan, the same strategy they have carried through a season spent without Yao Ming and largely without McGrady. 'Next man in line,' Shane Battier said. 'It doesn't matter what the situation is. Next man in line, step up. You fill the role and pick up the slack for the guy who is not playing or sick or injured or whatever. You don't need to tell anybody to step up. It's sort of an understood thing. ‘OK, it's my turn. I need to pick up my game.'?' In Saturday's 95-90 win over Oklahoma City, Trevor Ariza had perhaps his best game of the season, with David Andersen, Chuck Hayes and Battier picking up for the offense missing elsewhere. But this was nothing new."

  • Ken Sugiura of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The Hawks' last loss before Saturday, a game that bears similarities to their defeat to Chicago, triggered a six-game winning streak. Beginning Tuesday, the Hawks can determine if their 101-98 overtime loss to the Bulls will have the same trampoline effect when they play Minnesota. Said forward Josh Smith, 'This would have been a perfect opportunity to keep ourselves in the pack and separate a little bit, but we've just got to bounce back and try to get a win in Minnesota.' "

  • Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News: "Over the past two weeks, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has learned much about the heart of his team. He has observed in his players a mettle, moxie and competitive streak affected neither by blown leads nor big deficits. Whether it be the Spurs' response to a squandered 22-point lead against Charlotte, a 20-point second-half deficit at Phoenix or twin third-quarter nightmares against Utah or Indiana, Popovich has catalogued plenty of evidence of his team's resolve and resiliency. To which he says: Enough already. He gets the point. 'The real bottom line is we're still an inconsistent team, and we have a long way to go,' Popovich said. 'We give away quarters, and we have to dig down. It's great to see we have character, and we're going to keep fighting, but that's not going to be good enough against the big boys.' "

  • Dan Duggan of the Boston Herald: "It wasn’t long ago many observers wondered if Tony Allen would have a role on this year’s Celtics team. With each thunderous dunk, the reserve guard has put a definitive end to that thought. Allen had 15 points and six rebounds in last night’s 122-104 win over the Timberwolves at the Garden and had a dunk that point guard Rajon Rondo said has his vote for play of the year. Early in the second quarter, Eddie House made a steal and then saved the ball in front of the Celtics bench with a behind-the-back pass to a streaking Allen. Allen took the ball right to the hoop and posterized Minnesota’s Corey Brewer with a one-handed slam. 'Actually I kind of surprised myself. I wanted to lay it up, but I saw him running so hard, so I just had to finish,' Allen said. 'I was pretty happy after that. It actually motivated me throughout the game.' It’s the type of play the Celtics have come to expect from Allen, who missed the first 20 games of the season while recovering from offseason surgery on his right ankle."

  • Eric Koreen of the National Post: "Really, they are not apt nicknames. Injured Toronto Raptors forward Reggie Evans has taken to calling his young teammates DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems Batman and Robin. The implication is that they are a dynamic duo; they work well together. The problem, though: neither Batman nor Robin can fly. If only Superman had a sidekick, there might be some flight-capable superhero analogy to make. Certainly, DeRozan and Weems can get off of the ground, as evident in the Raptors' 98-92 win over New Orleans yesterday afternoon. During a crucial 12-2 run that gave Raptors control of the generally lethargic game, the pair scored 10 points, including an alleyoop dunk from DeRozan off of a pass from Weems. There is another problem with Evans' idea: DeRozan and Weems both do not have the primacy to determine who exactly is the caped crusader, and who is his green-clad sidekick."

  • Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel: "General Manager Otis Smith and SG Vince Carter chatted for about 15 minutes after practice. Carter also talked to Stan Van Gundy after his forgettable 1-of-14 shooting night against Portland. It followed his 10-point game Thursday night against Miami. 'I told him [Sunday] that I thought he took to heart a lot of things we talked about after the Miami game,' Van Gundy said. 'He played harder on the defensive end than any time this season. 'He really came out wanting to play great and it worked against him a little. I thought he tried a little too hard on offense. I think he was trying to force his way to the basket. I think he tried to make it too hard instead of just relaxing.' Smith said his theory is that Carter is so talented that he 'gets bored, so he adds a degree of difficulty to the game that sometimes doesn't necessarily have to be there.' "

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: "Larry Bird says Stephen Jackson is the toughest guy in the NBA, in terms of playing with an injury. So when Jackson didn't come back to play, after suffering back spasms in the third quarter, I figured this was bad. Jackson confirmed as much, both with his expressions and words post-game. He's never had a serious back injury before, and the more he tried to stretch it out, the more tight his back became. Jackson hopes that muscle-relaxers will have the intended effect, but it wouldn't surprise me if this puts him out Tuesday at home versus the Detroit Pistons."

  • Brian Windhorst of The Plain Dealer: "Sunday as they warmed up near the spot on the on the floor at American Airlines Center where a nasty collision cost Houston Rockets' forward Carl Landry five teeth Friday night, the Cavs players who wear mouthguards were reminded why. That blow caused a deep gash in Mavericks' star Dirk Nowitzki's arm and kept him from playing Sunday. LeBron James is part of a league-wide trend that the Landry injury may only increase. About the only thing more popular than headbands these days are mouth guards. Ironically, Nowitzki has used them for years. Just three years ago, only two Cavaliers used them on a daily basis. Now, 10 of the 15 players use them and the Cleveland Clinic molds and supplies the players with high-end protective pieces they use during the season. Mo Williams was happy he wears one when he took a shot to the mouth three minutes into the game against the Mavericks. Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejao all wear mouth guards on a nightly basis."

  • Sam Amick of The Sacramento Bee: "If someone hadn't handed Omri Casspi the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, it might have been days before he hunted one down. But before the Kings played at Milwaukee on Saturday night, the rookie small forward was shown the four-page spread with the headline, 'Welcome, the King of Israel.' The NBA's first Israeli player smiled, his eyes widening at the prominence of the pictures of him inside America's most storied sports magazine. 'Nice,' he said. 'Very nice.' Casspi wasn't expected to show up on the Kings' active list on most nights during his first season, let alone see himself dubbed 'The King of Israel' in bold, 70-point font just days before Christmas. ... 'I'm not really trying to think about it, you know,' Casspi said. 'Maybe when I go back home (to Israel), when I have a couple of days with myself to think about the season and what I need to improve and how I did and how everything went for me in my first season. But there's no time now. I've got to keep rolling. Every game, every game. I've got to stay focused. I can't think about nothing else. Don't relax. Get ready for the next game. Sleep well. Eat well. That's about it.' "