First Cup: Thursday

  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: This was the game Lakers fans had been awaiting, hoping their team could turn into something special. Shrug off a season of only mildly inspirational play. Win a big road game. Have someone grab 30 rebounds. Thirty rebounds? Sure. Andrew Bynum became the first Laker to do it in 34 years, pushing and shoving the San Antonio Spurs out of the way as the Lakers stunned them without Kobe Bryant, 98-84, Wednesday at AT&T Center. "They beat us to death," was how Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich described it, and you could suddenly sense the rest of the Western Conference slowly turning toward the Lakers. In a little more than two hours, big-picture expectations of the Lakers rose meteorically. They led by 26 against a team that was drafting comfortably off Oklahoma City a game out of first in the West. It made no sense. Bryant skipped a third consecutive game because of a sore left shin and the Spurs allegedly were rested after sitting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their previous game.

  • Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News: The Spurs have been receiving a lot of favorable national buzz since the trade deadline after adding Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills to their rotation. The extra players are nice, but they haven’t made the Spurs any better equipped to face the Los Angeles Lakers’ height that has always been their biggest advantage against them. The Lakers took full advantage of their size in a resounding 98-84 victory over the Spurs Wednesday night. With Kobe Bryant out of the lineup, the Lakers were forced to work inside-out with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum as their offensive focal points. In a weird way, it might have made them even better equipped to attack the Spurs than if Bryant was in the lineup. The Lakers outrebounded them, 60-33. Bynum grabbed a career-best 30 caroms as it seemed like no Spur was able to contest him inside.

  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: If they play their final eight games with the determination and focus they showed down the stretch of their 111-107 victory over the Bucks at the Bradley Center,the Knicks will be in the postseason for the second season in a row. The Knicks had some big efforts and made some humongous plays with the game on the line, erasing an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit and outscoring Milwaukee 25-13 over the final 8:36. The result was the Knicks (30-28) opened up a two-game lead on Milwaukee for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. They're just one-game behind seventh-place Philadelphia. The win also tied the season series with the Bucks at 2. Conference record is the next tiebreaker, and the Knicks have a 11/2-game lead on Milwaukee in that race. "This probably was the biggest win we had thus far this season," Carmelo Anthony. "Just from how important it was, the way we won, gutted it out, the way we responded, the way we buckled down on the defensive end and won this game."

  • Michael Hunt of the Journal Sentinel: Amid the buzz that was good to hear on a Wednesday night, the Bucks were in the game to end all games - at least for the last playoff spot in the East, at least for this week - for a good reason. They have a roster suited for no better than eighth place. They played like it from the start against the shorthanded New York Knicks, who were tougher and eminently willing to take part in the layup line the Bucks provided. Allow the opposition to make 14 of their first 16 shots, miss nine free throws - didn't the Bucks used to be No. 1 in the league from the line? - and fail to make plays at the end, and a 111-107 loss gives you pretty much what you deserve, playoff-wise. Let's face it. The trade for Monta Ellis, who was a daring scorer against the Knicks with 35 points, wasn't meant to make the Bucks seriously competitive this season. It was made to hold their place until they can finally get control of their payroll and maybe find the right pieces to get them out of this NBA no-man's land.

  • Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe: Pietrus sustained the frightening injury in a game in Philadelphia against the 76ers. He was taken from the court on a stretcher, and it was uncertain when he would be able to contribute to the Celtics again. But on Wednesday, he was cleared to play, and he entered the game with 3:22 to go in the first quarter, earning a standing ovation from the Garden crowd. He got another round of applause went he left midway through the second quarter after scoring 3 points and grabbing one rebound. And while coach Doc Rivers had estimated that Pietrus would play between 5-10 minutes, Pietrus played 29 minutes, scoring 8 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in the Celtics’ 88-86 overtime win. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge had called Rivers Wednesday and said that Pietrus had tired after two minutes in a workout the day before, so Rivers hadn’t expected much. And yet Pietrus didn’t give his coach reason to take him out. ... Pietrus said after the game that he felt “great,’’ and that he knew the team needed him to bring energy on the second night of a back-to-back in two different cities.

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The Hawks (34-24) had a three-game win streak snapped. They are now tied with the Magic, Friday’s opponent in Orlando, for fifth in the Eastern Conference. Both teams are 1 1/2 games behind the Pacers, who defeated the Cavaliers on Wednesday. It was the Hawks' fourth loss in the past 12 games. The Celtics have clinched the season series with their second win. The third and final game is April 20 at Philips Arena. The Hawks have eight games remaining in the regular season, including six at home. Five are against teams currently at or above the .500 mark, including the rematch with the Celtics. The Celtics (34-24), who won their fourth straight, hold the fourth spot in the conference with their Atlantic Division lead. Wednesday's victory was their ninth win in the past 11 games and improved their record to 19-7 since the All-Star break. They are also 12-1 against the Southeast Division this season. Hawks coach Larry Drew didn’t want to put added significance on the game.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: The Clippers are so lucky to have Chris Paul. The guy is just a winner. He’s fearless, he’s clutch, he’s calm under pressure and he’s virtually unstoppable. Take his game-winning layup, for example. The Thunder defended it fairly well from the start, sending its two best defenders, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins at him at the top of the key to trap an upcoming ball screen. Paul wisely and coolly audibled out of the 1-4 ball screen with Blake Griffin and into a 1-5 ball screen with Kenyon Martin. The goal was to try to make Perk retreat and get a more favorable matchup with Serge Ibaka on the perimeter. But the Thunder didn’t bite. Perk stayed and, unfazed, Paul adjusted. Paul simply called his own number and jetted to the basket for the biggest bucket of the night. He orchestrated it all from the start and made it look simple from the start.

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: The media had formed a semi-circle around an exhausted-looking Chris Paul sitting inside the Clippers' locker room, the group waiting for the All-Star guard to explain how he was able to be the ultimate closer again. Paul, with a towel wrapped around his waist, looked up at the gathering and uttered, "Whew! I'm tired." He had just scored nine of the last 11 Clippers points, 31 all total, having carried his team to a 100-98 victory over the host Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. ... And after all he had done, the Clippers didn't escape until Kevin Durant (22 points) missed a potential game-winning three-pointer and after Blake Griffin (16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) tipped the rebound away as time expired. "This was a big game for us, especially after losing in Memphis the way we did," Paul said. "It's one of those games you just can't lose." Because the Clippers bounced back after losing in Memphis on Monday night, they maintained a half a game lead over the Grizzlies for the fourth seeding in the Western Conference.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Questions continue to fly about Randolph’s role coming off the bench, and how long the Grizzlies’ big man will accept it. Hollins praised Randolph’s production and improved conditioning. Randolph looks stronger and more active with every passing day. He was difficult for the Suns to handle in the post, especially down the stretch when the Griz went with a steady diet of Randolph on offense. Hollins said he spoke with Randolph about why playing off the bench helps balance this roster. Hollins likes Randolph paired with O.J. Mayo and Gilbert Arenas for offensive potency and an inside-out presence off the bench. “It’s all about winning,” Randolph said. “As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”

  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: At the beginning of this season, the 76ers got into a nice pattern of beating bad teams, who oftentimes were left shorthanded because of an injury or two. So good were the times then that fans spoke of the Sixers winning a playoff series, of what team might be a better matchup in the second round, of how close they could hang to the upper-echelon clubs of the Eastern Conference. Then came the valley. The Sixers went on to lose 18 of their next 27 and talk turned to a coach who was losing his players, of voices getting tuned out, of rifts among teammates. As has been said so many times, somewhere in between lies this season's Sixers. Obviously, getting closer to resembling the club in the first couple of months of the season is the goal. Slowly, and - maybe - surely, they are getting there. A lineup shuffle has seemed to breathe much-needed life into the Sixers and Wednesday it resulted in their second straight win, this time by 93-75 over the Toronto Raptors in Air Canada Centre.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: I heard from a number of people Wednesday about the story that appeared in the paper about the Coach of the Year. Barring a sudden change over the next two weeks, I’ll end up voting for Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau if I get to vote again this season. This is no knock on Frank Vogel. Vogel has done a hell of a job this season. The Pacers are on the verge of hosting a playoff series for the first time since the 2003-04 season. But ... Thibodeau has led the Bulls to the best record this season despite being without Derrick Rose, last season’s MVP, for 22 games this season. The Bulls aren’t a team loaded with talented outside of Rose. They’ve had a great season because of Thibodeau’s coaching. Vogel even acknowledged that he’d vote for Thibodeau, too.

  • Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: The Nuggets want us to believe chasing an NBA playoff spot is a gallant quest for a holy grail, requiring some kind of miracle. "I don't think we're underachieving," Denver coach George Karl said. "I think we're overachieving." Here's a different take: If the Nuggets don't finish among the top six teams in the Western Conference, making the playoffs is fool's errand. If Denver can't finish with at least a No. 6 seed, the team would be better off with a spot in the NBA lottery and a shot at adding young talent such as Duke's Austin Rivers or Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb in the draft. What good would another year of one-and-done in the playoffs do for the Nuggets? Denver has no shot against Oklahoma City or San Antonio, all but locks to be the top two seeds in the West. You know it. I know it. If we know it, how could a basketball man as savvy as Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri not realize the harsh reality of the situation? Let's be blunt. Denver is not playoff-worthy.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: The Rockets demonstrated that the Toyota Center rims can take a beating, but their worst shooting night of the season might not even come up when they see the next-day video. The shots were good. They missed. (And missed. And missed.) It happens, and there probably was some understandable fatigue mixed in. The Rockets knew where they went wrong during Wednesday night’s 103-91 loss to the Utah Jazz, and it was not about their 35.6 percent shooting or the 16 3-pointers they missed in 20 attempts. The Jazz were playing for their playoff lives. They were determined and desperate. The Rockets recognized it, having played the same way in Chicago and Los Angeles last week. When the Rockets got home — happy with their four-game sweep of the road trip and climb to sixth in the West — they did not match Utah’s desire until it was too late. ... It was not simply about effort, though the Rockets gave up 11 fast-break points in the first quarter.

  • Brian T. Smith of The Salt Lake Tribune: Who needs a roster filled with 15 healthy players? Who needs a big-name, flashy All-Star to finish off crucial games? Who needs experienced, proven veterans to carry them into the playoffs? Not the Jazz. Not when second-year small forward Gordon Hayward is playing out of his mind. Throwing down his best overall performance as a professional and pouring in the most meaningful statistics of his young career, the 22-year-old rising star was often untouchable Wednesday at Toyota Center. G-Man finished with a season- and game-high 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting, drilling four of five 3-pointers, hitting all seven of his free throws and adding in six assists and two steals. ... Phoenix’s loss to Memphis was music to the team’s ears. The Jazz walked off the hardwood ninth in the West, 1.5 games behind Denver, Houston and Dallas, who are tied for sixth. Utah gained a potential playoff tiebreaker against the Rockets by winning the season series, the Jazz started a pivotal three-game road trip the right way and Utah captured back-to-back victories for the first time since March 22-23.

  • Ray Nimmo of The Virginian-Pilot: Introduced last and to the biggest cheer of all the players, Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn put on a show in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament opener Wednesday. O’Quinn tallied 18 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and two assists for Portsmouth Sports Club in an 88-76 win over Norfolk Sports Club at Churchland High. “I felt good out there,” said O’Quinn, who helped Norfolk State upset second-seeded Missouri in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “We knew we wanted to win, so we all buckled down and did what we had to do.”