First Cup: Friday

  • Israel Gutierrez of The Miami Herald: "The Heat played with a purpose. A playoff-like purpose. This historic return home for one of the NBA's greatest might have become his biggest victory to date. He came out of this not only with the reassurance that he made the right choice, but he left more confident about it than ever. He came out of it knowing that Wade isn't a player with whom he's competing for touches, but possibly the best teammate he could have in moments like this. He came out of it knowing that, just days after he reportedly turned on his head coach, the Heat would still come together to support him. ... Now LeBron can move on. LeBron can move on, back to his new city, to his new group of supporters, knowing what he left behind won't haunt him. He left behind 38 points, eight assists and a city full of unfulfilled fans. It was the definition of closure."

  • Ethan Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: "LeBron James didn't just survive here Thursday night, in his long-awaited return to the arena he called his for seven years, in the state where he was born and raised. He thrived. He made his first jumper. He made his first free throw, foiling those who'd taken the other side of that Las Vegas proposition. He made his point early, that he wouldn't retreat, as he's been accused of doing under duress. He made his point later, that he wouldn't relent. He had 10 points, four rebounds and five assists in the first quarter. He had 24 points in the third, on 10-of-12 shooting. He scored on kamikaze drives. He scored on fallaway threes. He even scored with one hand, in mid-air, redirecting a Dwyane Wade lob. He scored 38 in all. He earned a seat on the side for the entire fourth quarter, leaning back, clapping. There was no way to know it would go like this, so smoothly, that James would play so well or the crowd would play so nice. Yes, nice. It's a relative term."

  • Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "As the night moved on, as the score tilted as much as 38 points in favor of the Heat, as the chants and boos faded to nothing,the storyline changed from Cleveland fans hate their lost hero to how well the Heat answered this big night. Cleveland couldn't score, couldn't rebound and certainly couldn't defend James (38 points) or Dwyane Wade (22 points). Isn't this how the Heat were supposed to look? Wasn't this the kind of show you expected to see from them at season's start? They did it Thursday. They ran. They shot. They defended. They pushed a lightweight Cleveland team away, like a leaf in the breeze, just as their talents demand and they hadn't done much of this early season. 'We played the most complete game all year,'' James said."

  • Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer: "James accomplished what he wanted to Thursday, though. He finished with 38 points on 15-of-25 shooting, added eight assists and five rebounds. He accounted for the final 14 points of the third quarter, sitting for all of the fourth. Even when the fans booed and jeered him throughout the game, he said he still appreciates all they did for him in his career. He might, he said, even feel a little bad about the way he handled 'The Decision.' 'At the end of the day, do I regret what I did? I never regret any decisions I made,' James said. 'You just try to learn from things in life, in general. If it's from sports or being a father or a friend. If you make a mistake or feel like you made a mistake you just learn for next time. There's not a clock you can turn back, you can't do it all over again. My intentions were on point, maybe the execution was a little off.' "

  • Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer: "Northeast Ohio can be proud of its fans, but the Cavs were horrible. After jumping to a 17-12 lead, they were overwhelmed by James and the Heat. By the end of the first quarter, they were behind, 31-23. At the half, it was 59-40. It just kept getting worse. As the Cavs crumbled, the Heat united around James, who had an MVP-type game with 38 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Who knows if Miami (12-8) uses this game -- its third victory in a row -- to help turn its season around? Frankly, who in Northeast Ohio cares? The Cavaliers were chastised by coach Byron Scott for a lazy approach. During the game as he was pouring in the points, James walked over to the bench a few times and chatted with some of his former teammates. The Cavaliers should be embarrassed by their lack of effort. But not the fans. They were at their best when so many people expected the worst."

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Most of the Warriors were glued to the locker room TV during Thursday's pregame to watch the venom with which LeBron James was greeted upon his return to Cleveland. Get this: Some of the Warriors have seen and heard far worse. Forward Vladimir Radmanovic said he just laughs off stateside insults after playing for Red Star Belgrade in Serbia. 'That was serious,' he said. 'We were out there, dodging thousands of coins and batteries.' When Keith Smart was coaching the Dominican Republic national team in 2005, they went to Puerto Rico for a tournament. He and his team had to be escorted off the court because of an unruly crowd. 'A lot of things went down during that game,' he said. 'You name it, it was everything.' "

  • Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com: "Pau Gasol missed 17 games a season ago because of strains to both his left and right hamstrings. Gasol said his current hamstring injury is a 'lesser degree' and 'not comparable' to the ones he suffered last season, but added, 'I think it's been a little bit of a warning here. It's letting me know.' If the warning is that Gasol's been playing too many minutes, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson doesn't seem to be heeding it. 'Phil pointed out today [that] I'm only averaging two more minutes than I did last year, [so] what are we talking about?' Gasol said. 'It's only two minutes.' Gasol is averaging 39.4 minutes per game this season, up from 37.0 minutes a season ago, but he's averaged 43.4 minutes in the last five games. '[I'm] concerned, but he's a pretty resilient player,' Jackson said. 'We think he can come back and play.' If Gasol can't come back and the injury worsens, the team will look to rookie big man Derrick Caracter to plug up the middle in the starting lineup until either Bynum or Gasol is ready to go."

  • John Canzano of The Oregonian: "If they haven't already, I expect the irrational, uninformed, ridiculous cries for Nate McMillan's head to kick in anytime now. I expect second-guessing. I expect backbiting. I expect the men of Vulcan Inc. -- the mothership company that oversees Trail Blazers for owner Paul Allen -- will look at the sputtering team's 8-10 record and say, 'Nate has to go!' What? You thought I was talking message boards? Hey, the Vulcans are a fickle bunch. They fashion themselves basketball people, but they're really not. They're impatient and impractical. At 8-10, we've arrived at the point of the season in which the Vulcans will surely start rolling their eyes and declaring that the issue here must be coaching. Remember, this is a bunch that dispatched a security team once to search computer hard drives at the team practice facility because it feared a leak. So McMillan should prepare himself, if he hasn't already. I have no doubt that they're smart, but this group should not be tinkering with the basketball operations right now, or at any other time."

  • Alan Hahn of Newsday: "When Raymond Felton signed a two-year contract with the Knicks this past summer, he knew it could appear as if he were just keeping the point guard seat warm until 2012, when All-Stars such as Chris Paul and Deron Williams are eligible for free agency. In fact, before Felton signed, Paul already had hinted of plans regarding New York when he raised a toast at Carmelo Anthony's wedding in July and suggested he and Anthony join Amar'e Stoudemire to form the Knicks' own Big Three. But Felton, on the eve of facing Paul and the Hornets said he wasn't thinking about what could happen in two years. 'I'm here now, I'm here to stay,' he said at the Knicks' training facility in Greenburgh. So we'll see what happens. If it happens, it happens. It's a business.' ... Felton has tried to block out the talk, not just about Paul but also the daily reminders about how well Steve Nash used to run the pick-and-roll with Stoudemire. But after a rocky start, Felton - who is averaging 18.2 points and 8.1 assists and has posted double-doubles in three of his last four games - is showing signs of developing a comfort level with Stoudemire. ... And right now, for the first time in years, the Knicks, who have won seven of their last eight, aren't talking about a player they don't have but one they actually do."

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: "Xavier Henry is already receiving arguably the highest praise bestowed a player wearing the Grizzlies uniform. Griz coach Lionel Hollins unleashed the adoration just the other night. Henry had just spent two hours mightily helping the Griz hold Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to 9-for-25 shooting Tuesday night. But it wasn't just that game that moved Hollins to remember his thoughts after a pre-draft meeting with Henry. The 6-6 guard, now in the starting lineup, is making an impact that belies his NBA experience. 'I went away saying 'that's Shane Battier all over again,' ' Hollins said. 'He is just poised and mature beyond his years. He understands the big picture of what's going on. That's what you like to see in all your players - come in the league mature.' There have been more talented players to wear the Griz uniform, but Battier remains the most revered. Battier returns to FedExForum tonight with the Houston Rockets as the only former Griz to have a poster night while playing for another team."

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "What if the Hawks play better without Joe Johnson than they did with him? I don’t think this will happen, mind you. I think he’s an excellent player. Was he worth $120 million? No, but the Hawks were always going to have to overpay to keep him, and not keeping him would have sent an even worse message to the public. (The same public, it must be said, about which Johnson said last spring he cares not one whit.) I think his team will miss him. But it became clear recently that the Hawks weren’t adapting as well to Larry Drew’s share-the-ball offense as the new coach would like. For one thing, the $120-million man had become just another guy, which I don’t believe is what the Hawks had in mind when they paid him $120 million. ... But let’s say the Hawks forge a new coalition in his absence. And let’s say Johnson returns in January and matters deteriorate. Would we be justified in thinking the Hawks just made the worst outlay of $120 million since the Colorado Rockies paid that much for a stumpy lefthander a decade ago? What was that guy’s name again? Oh, yeah. Mike Hampton."

  • Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle: "When asked if the Rockets' back-to-back championships were tainted because of Michael Jordan's foray into baseball, Phil Jackson elected to take a sideways shot. 'Definitely,' Jackson said. 'Without a doubt. Clearly, if the Bulls were whole, we would have won. It's pretty much registered by now. When Michael played, we won the championship.' Normally, I wouldn't even engage in this debate, but 'if the Bulls weren't whole'? What, did they not have a full roster? Were they not allowed to field a team in those two years? Give me a break. This isn't a homerish defense. I'm not going to argue about how well the Rockets played against the Bulls with Jordan. That's a waste of energy. Simply put, the best team won those titles. It's not the Rockets' fault Jordan retired. Unless a team throws a World Series or something, there is no such thing as a tainted title. Playing the 'if' game is plain silly, and Jackson should know that. ... The second year the Rockets won the title, Jordan returned. Is it the Rockets' fault he couldn't lead his team to the Finals? The Bulls lost to a team that the Rockets swept aside. Sorry, Phil. When the championship was decided, the Rockets were on the court playing, while you were somewhere on a ranch in Montana meditating, and your 'whole' team was on vacation."

  • Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post: "The questions and concerns and microanalyzing of an early season of missed shots was an eye-rolling experience for Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups. He had a plan. Billups eased through the preseason, coming off of a summer spent playing with the U.S. basketball team in the FIBA World Championships. He dialed it back a bit knowing, he says, that it meant starting the season off a bit slow before things returned to normal. Normal is close at hand. The veteran guard has averaged 15.5 points, 7.2 assists and is shooting 52.9 percent from the 3-point line in his past four games. In his past two, those numbers jump to 20.5 points, 8.5 assists and 62.5 percent from the 3-point line. He's quickly putting the early doldrums in the rearview mirror. 'I think his last four or five games have been his best games,' Nuggets coach George Karl said. 'There's no question that veteran players, older players, have to have more time to find their rhythm, find a comfort zone. I think Chauncey is a very prideful person. I see a little more bounce to his step, more bounce to what he's doing. And I'm happy to see it.' "

  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: "It isn't LeBron James vs. The State of Ohio and Millions Others Who Thought 'The Decision' Was Ridiculous. But the Dallas Mavericks vs. the Utah Jazz match-up tonight at EnergySolutions Arena is almost as big as the 21st game of the regular season -- the 82-game looooong regular season, mind you -- can possibly be. 'It's going to be a good game,' Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. 'There's going to be some hype surrounding it, not as much as the game (Thursday), but it should be a fun game to be a part of.' Added Jazz center Al Jefferson, who didn't exactly get big-time bouts while with Minnesota: 'I know it's going to be a battle, (on) ESPN. So it's going to be fun to play.' It's easy to see why they feel that way. Not only is the clash of Western Conference powers a featured national TV game, but both teams enter the late 8:30 p.m. contest on seven-game winning streaks."

  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: "Is making the playoffs as a low seed a goal or should this team look to build for the future? 'It's almost a Catch-22,' Rod Thorn said. 'You want to create as good a winning atmosphere as you can. You want to win every game you can; on the other hand, you want to develop players. That's the Catch-22. But if you look at the distribution of minutes, virtually everybody has had a chance to play some significant minutes, with a couple exceptions. Our bench has been one of the best parts of the season. Thad Young has really picked his game up, not just scoring, but defensively. We've had different lineups during the year, sometimes because of injuries, sometimes just trying to get a group out there to start the game that can do the job on both ends of the court. You almost have to have a shooter with the first group, a wing player, that the other team respects and will have to come out and guard. That's a problem that [coach Doug Collins] has to deal with.' Evan Turner was thought to be that player when he was taken with the second overall pick in the June draft, before Thorn arrived. Turner doesn't appear to be that player now, but Thorn said he could develop into it."

  • John Rohde of The Oklahoman: "Last season, Thunder starters missed a total of six games, all by center Nenad Krstic. So far this season, starters have missed 10 games. The Thunder is a combined 8-2 without its usual starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha and Krstic, and 5-4 with the starting lineup intact."

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: "Last season, Suns forward Jared Dudley received a dunk challenge from teammates. They set his season dunk total over/under at two. He wound up with five. This season, the slimmer, trimmer Dudley pledged he would get 10 dunks. Through 17 games entering Thursday night, the Dudley dunk-o-meter has not budged, although he fell trying one in practice Tuesday. On Wednesday, he arrived at the practice court to find an outline of his body on the floor in tape."

  • From The Dallas Morning News: "Shawn Marion is offering quite an incentive to the lucky buyer that purchases his Miami home. Marion announced Thursday that he has listed for sale his six bedroom, eight-plus bathroom Miami luxury home, according to a press release. And if you happen to land the expensive pad, that's listed at $2,000,000, you will also receive a round-trip private jet service and four club level tickets to the Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011. The 7,300+ square foot home is located in the waterfront guard-gated community of Cloisters on the Bay."

  • Tim Buckley of the Deseret News: "They're his thoughts, his feelings, mostly his words. They're the answers to questions perhaps never asked during his rookie, and lone, NBA season. They're oft-powerful anecdotes, all contained in the just-published memoir of one-time Jazz first-round draft choice -- and big-time bust -- Luther Wright. ... Wright and co-author Karen Hunter, a former New York Daily News sportswriter, shed light on demons that terrorized the burly center and offer interesting insight on why his short stay in Utah went awry. From his memories of sexual molestation by three relatives to substance abuse that started even before he got to Seton Hall University, Wright and Hunter cover it all. It's the compelling tale of an out-of-control spiral that began to take a turn for the better only after two toes from his drug-ravaged body were amputated, and the short-but-mesmerizing story of how he got to where he is today, playing gospel music and leading a weekly Bible study class at a church in native New Jersey."