First Cup: Wednesday

  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: Pondering the greatness of LeBron James this season has been like inviting a da Vinci scholar to consider the Mona Lisa’s smile, or asking a theologian, “What is life?” Where to begin? LeBron steps onto a basketball court and it must have been how it felt watching Gershwin sit before a piano. What is next? What magic? “He has created that problem for himself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was saying before Tuesday night’s game here. “That consistent greatness. How can he top himself each night? “This isn’t a normal MVP year he is having.” This isn’t normal, no. Not even by superstar standards. Not even by best-player-in the-NBA standards. The player known for the highlight-reel dunks that make full arenas gasp keeps going higher. Keeps elevating. So when James does have a mortal (for him) game, as he did in Tuesday’s 107-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, it stands out even more than the excellence that has become his norm. Yeah, all James did was score 24 points with six assists and five rebounds, and end the night’s scoring with a perfect alley-oop to Udonis Haslem for a dunk and then a laser pass to Mike Miller for a three. Oh, and LeBron only had three dunks. Yawn. James is so great that when he’s below average, he’s still really good.

  • Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon-Journal: Although the Cavaliers didn’t send out iPods loaded with highlights, coach Byron Scott believes Anderson Varejao should be an All-Star. Varejao’s wait for the long-coveted honor will end at 7 p.m. Thursday, when the full roster for the Feb. 26 game at the Amway Center will be announced on TNT. The Cavs center’s candidacy has grown steam, especially after his 20-20 performance Jan. 31 against the Boston Celtics. Varejao was averaging 10.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists going into Tuesday night’s road game against the Miami Heat. Varejao, 29, has never been to an All-Star Game in his previous seven seasons. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team in 2009-10, when he also finished third in voting for the top sixth man. Former teammate LeBron James and Heat star Dwyane Wade believe Varejao should join them in Orlando. “I thought Andy was an All-Star in the past and he never got the nod,” James said Tuesday morning. “There’s not many players in the Eastern Conference playing good ball like he’s playing. If he does get an opportunity, it will be well-deserved. I know how hard he works.”

  • Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald: So how do you explain Mario Chalmers’ shooting percentage jumping to 50.5 – well above his 40.9 career average - and 46.6 percent on threes (eighth in the league)? Credit Chalmers for lofting 500 shotsevery day during the lockout – something he hadn’t done since he left Kansas. “My balance is better,” he said. “Having two healthy legs helps - the ankle injury bothered me last season.” And LeBron James points to another issue: “Last year, his confidence got played with a lot” because the Heat experimented with Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby. (Not that confidence should be an issue; Erik Spoelstra says Chalmers acts like the most confident player on the team.) But now Chalmers knows he’s the unquestioned starter. His 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is worse than his 2.2-to-1 career average, but he’s No. 1 on the Heat and fourth in the NBA in plus/minus, with the Heat outscoring teams by 184 points with him on the floor. FYI: The top three NBA players in plus/minus are Jrue Holiday, Luol Deng and LeMarcus Aldridge; James is eighth at plus 169.

  • Frank Dell’Apa of The Boston Globe: Paul Pierce has moved into second place on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list. But Pierce (21,797 points) is only third among his current teammates in career scoring, behind Kevin Garnett (23,659) and Ray Allen (22,583). The difference in their careers, of course, is that Pierce has been with only one team since entering the NBA. “It’s very tough,’’ Allen said of maintaining loyalty to a team. “Because you have to be committed, as well as the organization. If you look at a 10-year span, most organizations go in cycles of success. And, when you hit those tough times, that’s when organizations want to rebuild and bail out on the players they have. “It’s not only a great testament to Paul being committed, but also the organization being committed and kind of following through on the plan and using him for what they were doing to help win the championship.’’

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Steve Nash's 38th birthday began Tuesday morning with a man in a pink gorilla suit serenading him while playing a guitar at the Suns' breakfast meeting. That act was hard to top, but Nash pulled it off, making a game-winning shot that got a gorilla off the Suns' back: their failure to win three games in a row this season. Nash broke a tie with a running 5-foot bank shot, and the Suns' lead stood when Milwaukee failed to get off a shot on the game's last possession, giving the Suns a 107-105 victory at Bradley Center. ... Now that Steve Nash is guiding the Suns back to some respectability, there is even less reason for Western Conference coaches not to vote him an All-Star reserve. He leads the NBA in assists despite the Suns not having a top-40 scorer. He has outshot any guard in the league and almost any in history. Losing can't be the criteria to keep him out. The coaches voted in Kevin Love and Blake Griffin off losing teams last year.

  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: It was a very strange night at the Bradley Center on Tuesday. Michael Redd was wearing Phoenix Suns purple instead of the Milwaukee Bucks jersey he wore for 11 seasons. Bucks guard Brandon Jennings took just four shots, including one in the first half as his team fell behind by 17 points at intermission. And Milwaukee trailed by 21 points in the third quarter before staging a huge rally to take a four-point lead in the final quarter. But the not-so-strange sight was Suns guard Steve Nash, celebrating his 38th birthday, calmly driving for the game-winning basket with 5 seconds left to give Phoenix a 107-105 victory. The suddenly slumping Bucks (10-14) lost their third straight game and were searching for answers later before heading to Toronto to begin a two-game trip. "He (Nash) kind of toyed with us tonight but he does that to a lot of people," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "You've just got to try to crowd him and stay with his body, make him play in a crowd."

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: I set off a lot of talk on Twitter when I mentioned that Pacers energetic PA guy Michael Grady was trying to get the “crowd into the game during the pregame intros.” But “that’s hard to do when the seats are more empty than full.” Then I re-tweeted (Jazz beat writer from the Salt Lake City Tribune) Brian T. Smith’s comment, “Thought Indy was a sports town? Not tonight, apparently.” The excuses came flying in after that. People mentioned the Super Bowl being in town. The Soap Opera going on with the Colts. The game being played during the week. The Pacers announced a crowd of 11,006 fans at the fieldhouse on Tuesday. I didn’t go around counting heads, but that number seemed kind of high. It seemed like half the crowd came to see former Brownsburg High School and Butler standout Gordon Hayward. ... There’s no other way to look at it, fans still aren’t buying into the Pacers’ early-season success. This is an issue we talked about on here earlier this season, but there are still a lot of people in the Pacers organization wondering why fans aren’t showing up. The Pacers went into Tuesday’s game 26th in the league in attendance, according to ESPN.com

  • Brian T. Smith of The Salt Lake Tribune: The unproven Jazz entered their two-month road test saying they must stick together, stand strong and persevere. Three games and three losses in, Utah’s leaders are already looking in the mirror. "We’ve got to wake up, man. We’ve got to start doing it," Jefferson said. "Because we’re going to find ourselves on the outside looking in." The Jazz were barely competitive for the first 28 minutes against an athletic, well-balanced Pacers (17-7) team that continues to assert itself as one of the best squads in a reshuffled Eastern Conference. Indiana point guard Darren Collison was Jeremy Lin Redux, scoring a game-high 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and continually darting his way through the perimeter, into the paint and toward the basket.

  • Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune: At first, the debate over the fourth pick in the 2010 draft revolved around basketball philosophy. Would you rather have a polished wing or a promising but immature center? In the last two years, it has become a question of character. Would you rather have a nice guy who plays horribly or an immense talent who might get his coach fired? Kahn chose Syracuse wing Wes Johnson over Cousins, the young center from Kentucky. Johnson was safe. Cousins is becoming the Randy Moss of that draft. Johnson is the classic productive collegian who can't handle the speed of the NBA; Cousins, while occasionally dominating, demanded a trade this winter, leading to the dismissal of his first NBA coach, Paul Westphal. So who would you rather have now? The better question is: How could any Minnesotan not want Cousins? Cousins could have given the Wolves three All-Star-caliber players, along with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. He is averaging 15.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Tuesday, Cousins immediately got into foul trouble, and Pekovic's physical play and defense limited him to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Cousins also produced 11 rebounds in the Wolves' 86-84 victory. To put it another way: Cousins performed about as poorly as he can, against a powerful defender, and still produced his ninth double-double in 11 games while playing only 25 minutes. Johnson produced seven points and no rebounds or assists in 25 minutes.

  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Keith Smart said he is trying to cultivate Fredette's role as a catalyst for the second unit, and Fredette excelled Tuesday. Smart said he saw growth in Fredette's handling of being benched and his readiness against the Timberwolves. "Sometimes when you're playing, you can't really see it," Smart said. "You can sit back a few games here and there and see some things." Fredette did his best to turn not playing for two games into a positive experience. "When you're watching the game, I try to pick up on things," Fredette said. "I try not to zone out. I try to still be in involved in the game plan, encourage teammates and see what I can do better when I get out there. "It's something I'll continue to get better at when I get out there and make the best of my opportunities like I did tonight."

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: This has to be way too early to write the Warriors' post mortem. They've played one-third of their season, and there are 2 1/2 weeks to the All-Star Game. Their promised playoff berth can't be out of the question already. But on a night when Monta Ellis gave reason for hope to the semi-delusional, scoring a career-high 48 points (including 30 in the first half), the overall numbers were still too glaring for one of the league's most rosy-eyed optimists to discount questions about the season being lost. "We have not taken advantage of our schedule. That's the real answer," Warriors head coach Mark Jackson said before his team lost 119-116 to Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. "It's going to be challenging going forward." Sure, the Warriors played the league's best team Tuesday, but, all things considered, they've had the NBA's least demanding schedule. The Warriors (8-14) have played 14 of their first 22 games in front of some of the league's most loyal fans. On Tuesday, 17,971 came to Oracle Arena. The Warriors have rewarded the faithful by going 6-8 at home.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: By no means was this Oklahoma City’s preferred style of play. The Thunder is supposed to be a defensive-minded bunch, with ample discipline to avoid getting sucked into speed traps like this. But playing on the second night of a back-to-back that saw the first game require overtime, the Thunder simply lacked the proper focus to stick to its principles. Yet, the best team in the NBA just keeps on winning. The Thunder stole a 119-116 shootout this time, bringing its league-best record to 20-5. “It was a great game for the fans,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It’s not the way that we anticipate

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: They all got together as a group, gathering to deal with the devastating news that their friend and teammate Chauncey Billups will miss the rest of the season because of a torn left Achilles' tendon. All of the Clippers kept telling one another that they must fill that void as one. It's not about any single player doing more, they said. It's not about All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin taking on bigger responsibilities, or about Mo Williams trying to be more productive, they contend. "This is something that me and Blake and all of us have talked about is that [because of] what happened to Chauncey, obviously guys are going to have to step up," Paul said. "But it just means that everybody has to do a little bit more. Not just one or two people, but everybody." However, there are some things Billups provided that just can't be duplicated. He's a veteran presence with 15 years in the NBA. He's a calming influence. He has the ability to knock down big shots, thus his nickname, "Mr. Big Shot." He's a leader and he has the ability to play both shooting and point guard. "When Chauncey was out earlier, I didn't try to do any more," Griffin said about Billups' missing two games because of a strained right groin. "I don't think anybody should try to do that. We're comfortable with Mo, so we should be all right."

  • Houston Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times: On Tuesday, the Internet was abuzz with fans pointing to Billups' injury as another example of the "Clippers Curse." One problem. There is no Clippers Curse. To be sure, there have been times when players have been injured: Blake Griffin missed his first season because of a knee injury. Danny Manning, the Clippers' top pick in 1988, blew out his knee in his rookie season. The team traded two first-round picks for Tiny Archibald in 1977; one month into the season, he tore his Achilles' tendon and missed the entire season. Bill Walton had a series of foot injuries during his seasons with the team. Some call that a curse, but other teams call it a day in the life of an NBA team. Ask Lakers fans about James Worthy breaking his leg just before the start of the 1983 NBA playoffs, probably costing the Lakers an NBA title. Or ask them about Byron Scott and Magic Johnson both suffering torn hamstrings during the 1989 NBA Finals, with Scott hurting his before Game 1 and Johnson during Game 2. The Lakers were swept in that series. Or Magic retiring after testing positive for HIV. Does anyone say the Lakers are cursed? No, because the Lakers officials have a history of making wise draft picks and trades, leaving the team in position to recover quickly from setbacks.