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First Cup: Friday

  • Joe Freeman of The Oregonian: It’s been four-and-a-half months since Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen unexpectedly showed up to the first day of training camp and revealed his secret wish to see his team play better defense. Four-and-a-half long months of head-scratching, mediocre and sometimes awful oh-lay performances that made you wonder if the young and defensively-challenged Blazers would ever show the heart and grit required to stifle an opposing offense. Well, the answer finally arrived in emphatic fashion Thursday night in Chicago, where the Blazers were — gasp! — rugged, determined and connected on defense en route to a 99-89 victory over the Chicago Bulls before 21,946 at the United Center. “Hands down,” All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge said, when asked if it was his team’s best defensive outing of the season. “I don’t think we’ve ever rotated like that in pick and roll (coverage), ever controlled the ball like that in a game.”

  • Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: It wasn’t supposed to look like that. Not with so much that had gone on for the Bulls lately. A high-energy week of practice, the return of both Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson from injuries, a group of players still angry about an overtime loss to Denver on Monday. No, Thursday was supposed to be the start of the playoff push, and Portland was expected to be the team that was just standing in the way of that progress. Following the 99-89 loss to the Trail Blazers, however, the fading Bulls had more questions than answers. “It’s really disappointing,’’ Joakim Noah said. “We’re not playing good right now. This is the final stretch and we’re not getting it done, so we got to find a way.’’ When asked what needed to change, however, Noah paused and replied, “I don’t know.’’ That was the running theme, as the Bulls (36-31) have now lost two straight on the three-game homestand, and dropped into a sixth-place tie with Boston in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: How? How?? It was unreal, surreal. This thing was over — the 76ers up eight points with less than two minutes left — but the Nuggets, resuscitated, climbed back into the game and won 101-100 on Thursday night at the Pepsi Center. Corey Brewer made three free throws with 2.1 seconds leftto give Denver the lead for good, cemented by an Anthony Randolph block on Damien Wilkins at the buzzer. Brewer scored — poured? — a career-high 29 points, including a 3-pointer with 9.2 seconds left. "It was crazy. To be honest, I didn't think we had any chance of wining," Brewer said. "Even when (Evan Turner) missed those two free throws, it gave us life." After Turner missed both, Denver was able to get Brewer open for the 3-ball foul. "We ran it for Andre (Miller) to come off, and then (Danilo) Gallinari, to keep it," Brewer said, "and then I was going to come for the handoff, and I was able to get it — and I saw the defender coming, so I tried to get it off quick." That makes 14 consecutive wins for the fellows in yellow, a team NBA franchise record, while also tying the longest streak in coach George Karl's career, a streak that occurred in 1996, when his SuperSonics ultimately went to the NBA Finals. Denver is an incredible 31-3 at home and on a 16-game home winning streak.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: TRUST. That's what it said on the locker room's dry erase board, in letters as big as the Nuggets' win. It was Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where Denver would win an eye-popping, back-to-back finale against the mighty Thunder. Why do the Nuggets win games they should lose? I can give you a lot of fancy stats about fast-break scoring and improvements in all facets of defense, but the incalculable intangible is that they're among the league leaders in trust. "We talk a lot about the word trust," Nuggets coach George Karl said, "trusting each other, trusting the concepts, trusting the intensity. The word trust has been in our game plans a lot. And I have to trust them, they've earned that trust." … On the offensive end, Karl said the Nuggets are as good as any team at sharing the ball with the open player, regardless of the name on that player's back. That was the curse of the Iverson-Melo Nuggets. It's Spurs-esque. No, the Nuggets are not as good as the Spurs. But they trust each other like they do, and that could be something come mid-April.

  • John Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer: The ending was emblematic of just how things have gone for the 76ers. Leading by six points late in the game against the Denver Nuggets, the Sixers let it all slip away and lost a game they had won, falling to the Nuggets, 101-100, Thursday night at the Pepsi Center. With 7.1 seconds left and the Sixers leading, 100-98, Evan Turner missed a pair of free throws, allowing the Nuggets, who called a timeout, one last shot to win the game. Then Damien Wilkins fouled Denver's Corey Brewer as he attempted a three-pointer. Brewer stepped to the line and sank all three free throws to give the Nuggets the victory and extend their winning streak to 14 games. "I don't know; the referee said I fouled him, so I must have fouled him," Wilkins said. "I was just trying to challenge the shot aggressively and not let him get a clean look. I was a little bit too aggressive tonight and I cost my team a win tonight. I can't foul a guy shooting a thee-pointer when we're up two. "So we didn't deserve to win the game. Being overly aggressive cost us one, so you live and you learn."

  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Tuesday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers might have been the Kings' best home victory of the season, considering the opponent. But it also was a game the NBA deemed to have had too much acting. Kings guard Tyreke Evans and Clippers guard Chris Paul both received warnings for flopping during the game. The league defines flopping "as any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player." "The primary factor in determining whether a player committed a flop is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact."

  • Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: Timberwolves forward Chase Budinger returned Thursday night after four months away with a three-pointer made and a big smile in a 101-98 loss at Sacramento, but neither of those two things were quite enough. Budinger’s 17-plus minutes played and nine points scored on 3-for-7 shooting included one three-pointer — the only one in his team’s 1-for-19 night — as the Kings recovered from a 12-point, first-half deficit to win their third consecutive home game. The Kings had beaten the Bulls and the Clippers at Sleep Train Arena and on Thursday completed the trifecta, thanks to a game-changing 13-2 fourth-quarter run when Tyreke Evans attacked the basket at will. Evans scored 11 of his 21 points in a fourth quarter when the Wolves led by a point with 9:44 left, trailed by 10 with 5:32 left and still had a chance to tie the score at the final buzzer when Dante Cunningham’s desperation three-pointer went wide right. “We gave them too many spurts, too many easy opportunities, too many easy baskets,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.

  • Dale Kasler, Tony Bizjak and Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee: Sacramento's drive to keep the Kings took a dramatic detour Thursday as a new lead investor emerged for the team and the city missed its self-imposed deadline for wrapping up a deal for a new arena. The dual developments, announced within minutes of each other during a chaotic afternoon, suggested that Sacramento was still laboring to finalize its plan to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle. Although city officials said they're confident they'll get a deal done on a new arena, there isn't a lot of time: The plan must get OK'd first by the City Council, and Sacramento has to pitch its proposal to a group of key NBA owners in less than two weeks. Vivek Ranadive, an Indian-born software tycoon who lives in Silicon Valley, was unveiled as the man who will lead the bid for the team itself. Already a part owner of the Golden State Warriors, he takes the reins from East Bay health-club financier Mark Mastrov. A source familiar with the situation said Mastrov – whose initial bid was described as inadequate by the NBA – will remain a major partner in the bid. The third investor in the Sacramento effort, Beverly Hills billionaire Ron Burkle, was continuing to negotiate a deal with city officials on a new arena at Downtown Plaza. But in a somewhat unsettling development for the city, officials were unable Thursday to complete the so-called term sheet outlining the city's subsidy and other elements of the deal. The document was supposed to be released to the public in the afternoon.