First Cup: Friday

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: The Indiana Pacers, 81-76 winners over the New York Knicks on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, showing now they can beat the class of the league after a stretch of dispatching the lesser lights. Their highest-paid player, Roy Hibbert, is averaging 9.7 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from the floor, mired in a seasonlong slump. They still don't have Danny Granger, who is supposed to come back in February. And none of it matters. In the playoffs, the Pacers will be dangerous, and nobody will want to play them. Even the Miami Heat, who had their fill of the Pacers last spring. Here's why: Because Granger will be back, scoring his 18-20 points per game; Because they play defense both on the perimeter and in the paint, and defense wins in the playoffs. … The Pacers do one thing better than anyone else in the league, one thing that explains their recent surge to the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference: Play defense. They are stifling. "They're a great defensive team,'' TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "This is a team that has an identity now.''

  • Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News: This just in: James (Guitar Jimmy) Dolan is a lot fonder of Carmelo Anthony than he is of the suits running Comcast and Time Warner. The gap is even wider now. Dolan first professed true love for Melo when he ordered Donnie Walsh to trade half the team to Denver to bring Anthony to the Knicks. He sealed the relationship, not with a kiss, but with a contract paying Anthony around $65 million over three years, an average of more than $21 mil per. Man, that’s true love. Now Dolan, the Cablevision boss, must be seething that his two cable rivals, companies he has done business battle with, cold busted his main man Anthony by providing all the video evidence the NBA needed to suspend him for Thursday night’s game with Indiana. All the speculation over what Kevin Garnett said to agitate Anthony during the Celtics’ 102-96 win at the Garden Monday night is just that. Numerous media outlets have reported the alleged insult. Reality is, no one except Anthony and Garnett know exactly what was said. In rendering its decision, the NBA did not focus on the chirping. It didn’t need to.

  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian: In a breathtaking comeback highlighted by two three-pointers by Matthews in the final minute, the Blazers shocked the defending NBA champion Heat 92-90 to win their ninth consecutive home game and improve to 20-15 on the season. “How about that?’’ owner Paul Allen said, half-stunned, half-giddy as he floated out of the tunnel from the court.It’s become that kind of season for the Blazers. One that continually amazes. Continually makes you wonder how this team keeps doing it. But it seems like this is no longer a nice, little flourish by the Blazers, one where reality is sure to bring the team down to Earth. This team has now beaten San Antonio and Miami at home. Won at New York and Memphis. I don’t know what more they need to do to prove they are for real. … I’m a firm believer in karma. And this franchise is getting some karma kickback in a good way. There hasn’t been the catastrophic injuries like we have seen to Greg Oden or Brandon Roy. And the locker room is brimming with good characters, good people, which has produced a good vibe. And the man who sets the tone, coach Terry Stotts, is as good of a man as you will find.

  • Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: The lights are not always brighter in Los Angeles, according to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. James and Wade had to chuckle Thursday when asked if the current scrutiny the Lakers are experiencing compares to what the Heat went through in 2010. Not even close, said the Heat’s stars. “No one will ever be able to compare what we went through,” James said. “Even though they’re not winning and they’re losing a lot of games, it’s still nowhere near what we went through. “Yeah, right. That level of magnitude was nowhere near where ours was two years ago. Nothing. Nothing compares to it.” In years past, the Heat’s current struggles might have been the lead story in the NBA, but the Lakers’ tumult has pushed the Heat’s rebounding woes out of the focus. … Wade suggested that some of the Lakers’ players were not fully prepared for the scrutiny. “I know [Kobe Bryant] understands it,” Wade said. “That’s the nature of the beast out in L.A. I don’t know if every player that comes through there understands what you’re getting yourself into when you walk through those Lakers doors.”

  • Joe Davidson of The Sacramento Bee: Kevin Johnson knows how to work a room. But considering the Kings-to-Seattle reports of recent days, the Sacramento mayor might need to add a bit more charm tonight. The special guest for tonight's 16th annual St. HOPE Fundraising Dinner at the Hyatt is LeBron James of the Miami Heat, which plays the Kings on Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena. The focus for the sold-out event is on the arts and St. HOPE's "commitment to providing arts education to its students and the surrounding Oak Park Community." So paint this picture in your mind: Johnson buddying up with everyone, gauging potential suitors for the Kings. Who has a healthy line of credit? Pass the donation hat. James has earned a few bucks in his day. Interested in buying a team, young man? King James? The Sacramento King James? … Oscar Robertson told us last year that the prospect of a Kings relocation "really upsets me." He speaks for many.

  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: The Mavericks never make it easy on themselves. Not in this generation. They had to overcome silly turnovers, missed free throws and a general lack of gumption on behalf of the starters during the first three quarters of their 117-112 overtime win against Sacramento on Thursday. Allow Dirk Nowitzki to explain. “For some reason down the stretch, it almost looks like we’re making plays to lose,” he said. “And not making plays to go ahead and win. “But we finally got the overtime streak over. Hopefully that lifts us up. It seems like we’ve been playing not to lose instead of playing to win. So we made some mistakes down the stretch we shouldn’t make. DC (Darren Collison) threw the ball away. I threw the ball in the 12th row out of the post.” Actually, Nowitzki was being too hard on himself. It was only the fourth row. But you get the point. These guys don’t know how to make it easy on themselves. Vince Carter missed two free throws. O.J. Mayo missed one at the end of regulation that could have won it.

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Richard Hamilton turns 35 next month, a time when reflection becomes reality for professional athletes. "You do start to think about how long you're going to play because you're not at the beginning of your career. You're toward the end," Hamilton said in a quiet moment late Wednesday. "I don't see myself playing any longer than when I'm 38. That will be my max by far." In his 14th season out of Connecticut, Hamilton prides himself on conditioning and possesses the type of cerebral game that probably could allow him to be knocking down jumpers at 40. One of the shooting guards he most respects is Reggie Miller, who retired from his Hall of Fame career at 39 after 18 seasons. But Hamilton also has endured two injury-plagued seasons since signing a two-year, $10 million deal with the Bulls. A team option for a third season is unlikely to be exercised. Asked if he will be the kind of player who has to be kicked out of the game, Hamilton shook his head. "Hell no. No, sir. Not at all," he said. … It's unlikely Hamilton will be dealt before the Feb. 21 trade deadline. But executives for two rival teams said the leaguewide perception is that Hamilton is available for the right offer, and a team source said the Bulls have fielded at least one call gauging his availability.

  • Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post: The Nuggets lead the NBA in foul shots. Foul, as in stinky. But, contrary to popular belief, the league's absolute worst free throw-shooting team has actually practiced its foul shots. At least once. I know this to be true, after hearing the rims in the Pepsi Center scream and duck Thursday, as Andre Iguodala and his Denver teammates launched bricks. Standing alongside Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri, a safe distance from the backboard, I asked: "So, is this the first time your team has practiced free throws all season?" "That's a low blow," Ujiri responded, in mock anger. He just loves it when I drop by practice to offer basketball advice. Denver is shooting 67.7 percent from the foul line. Hey, that's not bad ... if you're a fifth-grade team that plays in a church rec league. But if you need to win a SpongeBob SquarePants stuffed toy by shooting free throws at the state fair, don't call the Nuggets.

  • Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer: Anyone associated with the Cavaliers will tell you that Zydrunas Ilgauskas, beloved alum and fan favorite, is more than just a guy who works with the current big men on occasion. Ilgauskas' official title with the Cavaliers is special assistant to general manager. He travels to scout college players. He evaluates talent in the league. He helps General Manager Chris Grant plot and plan and construct the roster. But he's also 7-3, has two All-Star appearances and 13 seasons of experience on his resume. When Ilgauskas gives Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, the Cavaliers' two young big men, advice on how to execute and finish, you had better believe they listen.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Michael Beasley chose this for his uniform number, and it has proved to be the return on the Suns’ investment in him. In a season full of failures, Beasley has stood out the most after being the Suns’ free-agency priority and hope for a go-to scorer. Beasley is only one problem, as the Suns’ 0-4 record and 16-point loss margin would attest in the games Beasley did not play. The Suns have many serious flaws, but the worst year of Beasley’s career is among them. The career 45.5-percent shooter has made 37.2 percent of his shots this season and been a sieve defensively. The Suns have been outscored by 184 points in his time on the floor. Only Ramon Sessions (minus-185) and Byron Mullens (minus-211) of Charlotte, and Washington’s Kevin Seraphin (minus-206) and Bradley Beal (minus-226) have worse plus-minus tallies this season.

  • Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times: Anyone who watched Larry Sanders flounder in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas wouldn’t believe how he’s emerged as one of the best defenders in the NBA. Sanders, who was dreadful in the summer league against suspect competition, is averaging a league-high 3.3 blocked shots a game. In the last two games, with Boylan as coach, Sanders has had 13 rejections. In each of the last four games, Sander has had at least four blocked shots. Like virtually everyone else in the NBA, Boylan admitted he’s stunned by Sanders’ startling improvement. “His progress has just been amazing,’’ Boylan said. “I told people before I’ve never seen anything like it from where he was just this past summer to where he is now. It’s just a monumental leap.’’

  • Robert McLeod of the Globe and Mail: Since starting power forward Andrea Bargnani was lost to the team last month with a torn right elbow ligament and strained right wrist, Davis has stepped in and the Raptors haven’t missed a beat. In fact, when Bargnani is ready to return – perhaps by the end of January – it is quite possible that the former No.1 overall draft pick will have to bide his time on the bench watching Davis. Casey admits that it will be very hard to steal away Davis’s starting minutes once the likes of Bargnani and rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas (broken finger) are healthy enough to play.

  • Bill Oram of The Salt Lake Tribune: You know what they say about guys with big shoes. Big contracts. If any city should have a store tailored to a clientele with plus-sized hooves, Atlanta is a good one. It has become one of the most popular retreats and cities to live in among NBA players, most of whom require boat-sized dress shoes. "That is one thing guys look forward to going there," Jazz assistant Sidney Lowe said, "and they’ll buy big shoes." The Jazz, who play the Hawks on Friday at Philips Arena, employ at least six players or coaches with ties to the city. Tinsley has a home here, Kevin Murphy and Derrick Favors are Atlanta natives, and injured small forward Marvin Williams played the first seven years of his career with the Hawks before being traded to the Jazz last summer. Lowe and head coach Tyrone Corbin both played in Atlanta. Television analyst and former Jazz forward Matt Harpring is a native, attended Georgia Tech and is a full-time resident. "It was just a great city to be in," said Corbin, who played for the Hawks for four seasons in two stints. While the Hawks are consistently in the bottom quarter of NBA teams in attendance, their city is a magnet for players

  • Dale Buss Special to The Detroit News: The Detroit Pistons, whose average attendance ranks 29th among the NBA's 30 teams — above only the Sacramento Kings — are overhauling their approach to filling the seats at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Palace Sports & Entertainment officials say the days of free tickets and corporate-suite discounts, which bulked up crowds but did little for revenues, are gone. Under new owner Tom Gores, who bought the team in June 2011 for $365 million, the focus is on building value into ticket purchases through packages that include extra discounts, memorabilia and "experiences" that aren't available to secondary ticket buyers. They also are adjusting game prices, based on demand. The idea is to increase revenues while hoping the team's performance improves enough to attract more fans. The Pistons have the 11th best record in the National Basketball Association's 15-team Eastern Conference, which is not good enough to qualify as one of eight teams in the conference for the playoffs.