First Cup: Monday

  • Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: So is this his best season? “I don’t know,” LeBron James said. “I’ve had some really good individual seasons. I think, as far as efficiency, yeah. I don’t know if they’ve got all the numbers settled yet, but I felt I played some really good basketball this year.” How good? He has averaged 8.0 rebounds, highest of his career. He has shot 40.3 percent from 3-point range, highest of his career. He has averaged 7.3 assists, highest of his three seasons with Miami. Miami has outscored opponents by 720 points when he’s been on the floor. “Whatever I try to do, I want to be as close to perfect as possible,” James said. And now that Kobe Bryant is finished for the season, James is likely to lead the NBA in field goals made, holding a 36-make lead over Kevin Durant. “I don’t even shoot that much,” James said. “That’s pretty cool. I like that stat.” There’s a statistic that James appreciates even more, the one that tallies wins. Miami now has 64 with two games remaining, and a chance to tie James’ 2008-09 Cavaliers and Ray Allen’s 2007-08 Celtics for 10th on the single-season victory list. Those Cavaliers lost in the Eastern Conference finals to Orlando. These Heat, however, are stronger and deeper than that squad.

  • Howard Beck of The New York Times: The scene was set Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden — for payback, for message-sending, for a modest celebration and for a timely, well-earned rest. All the Knicks needed on this first day of the final week of the season was a sound victory over the Indiana Pacers. That, and four quarters without anyone being bruised, battered or broken. The Knicks got everything they wanted, and with a minimum of pain. With a suspense-free 90-80 victory, they clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference and secured home-court advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs, including a potential second-round meeting with the Pacers. The Knicks will open the playoffs Saturday against the seventh-seededBoston Celtics — the team that swept them two springs ago, in Carmelo Anthony’s first postseason in New York. “That’s in the back of our minds,” said Anthony, who scored 25 points. “We want to beat Boston — I mean, let’s be quite frank. This would be a great series for us.” Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who is injured, are the only Knicks left from that 2011 series. Yet the memory remains fresh, and for Anthony, painful.

  • Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: Even if Stoudemire does return, what can the Knicks expect when he hasn’t played since March 7? His blue practice jersey hangs these days in his locker. That’s the onlysign of him. Since he had to get knee surgery, the Knicks definitely seem to operate better and win more when it’s Carmelo Anthony and the current supporting cast. If the Knicks are smart, they’ll tell Stoudemire, “See you in training camp.” Donnie Walsh disagrees with that notion. “I would think he would help them,” he said. “Of course, if he’s healthy.” Stoudemire is a proven playoff scorer, something that J.R. Smith and everyone else who gets shots after Anthony aren’t able to list on their resume. But his presence on the floor with Anthony has never made for a smooth-running operation. Quite the contrary. On defense, well, Stoudemire talks a better game than he plays. The Knicks would probably have to get to the second round, potentially against Walsh’s Pacers, for there to be a Stoudemire sighting. Maybe even longer. When Woodson went down his list of walking wounded, he did not mention the player Walsh brought to New York to start the grand rebuilding program.

  • Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News: Life without Kobe Bryant, Day 1, was nothing if not unpredictable. And in a crazy, wonderful, astonishing way, actually quite beautiful. On a night when Pau Gasol was the 7-foot invisible Spaniard, Steve Blake told him, "I've got your back." Blake went on to have the performance of his career while standing on one of the biggest stages of his life. In a game in which the Lakers hovered around 35 percent shooting all night and Gasol clanked 14 of 17 shots, they shook off their notoriously soft-defending ways to harass the San Antonio Spurs into 36.5 percent shooting. And with their playoff hopes resting in the balance, they somehow, someway managed to band together without Bryant and miraculously beat the San Antonio Spurs 91-86 while sold-out Staples Center rocked as loudly as it has in years. Imagine that. With Bryant watching from home, they beat a Spurs team that will finish no worse than the second seed in the Western Conference. And in the process, inch one win closer - or a Utah Jazz loss - to the playoffs. The Lakers finish the season Wednesday at home against the Houston Rockets. Utah plays at Minnesota and at Memphis to finish its season. Any combination of a Lakers win or a Jazz loss does the trick.

  • Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post: Given a chance to state his case, Nuggets coach George Karl places this team, the 2012-13 Nuggets, among the top three in NBA franchise history — with a chance to enhance the position. "I think it's top three, from what I know about Denver," Karl said. "I think the year we had (in 2009), the one year Doug (Moe) had (1987-88) and this year. You can argue whatever you want to argue. ... And I think that argument is probably going to be more definitive from how we play in the playoffs." The playoffs can't come fast enough. Because while the Nuggets were busy setting a franchise record for victories in a season with Sunday's harder-than-it-had-to-be 118-109 win over a Portland team that started four rookies, it also was dampened a bit because of an injury. Starting power forward Kenneth Faried went down in the first quarter with a sprained left ankle and did not return. Though he's considered day to day, Faried did not make the trip to Milwaukee for Monday night's game and is scheduled to get an MRI exam. "I tried to power up and stepped on Will's foot when I tried to go," Faried said, referring to Portland's Will Barton. "Just twisted it. I'm relieved it ain't a break." Asked if he thought he'd be ready for the playoffs, Faried said, "I'm going to play."

  • David Barron of the Houston Chronicle: This finale, thankfully for the Rockets and their fans, is not the last word. The Rockets will be back at Toyota Center this month, matching up with a playoff opponent to be determined. So Sunday’s last regular-season home game was considerably more upbeat than those of the last three playoff-free seasons, representing a celebration for a Rockets team that has wildly exceeded expectations with hopes of more to come. With their 121-100 win over the Sacramento Kings, the Rockets improved to 45-35 and tied Golden State for the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They hold the tiebreaker over the Warriors and can clinch the sixth spot with wins Monday night at Phoenix and on Wednesday in Los Angeles over the Lakers. There are scenarios aplenty for playoff series against any of the five teams in front of them — too many for coach Kevin McHale to focus on. Besides, McHale said, he knows how the form chart will read under any circumstances. “Whoever we play, we will not be favored,” he said. “We’ll be underdogs to whoever we play. That’s fine with us. We want to get in there and get the guys playing well.”

  • Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Let the shaving begin. All those bushy beards the Dallas Mavericks sported over the past two months were able to come off Sunday night after the Mavs posted a 107-89 blowout against the New Orleans Hornets. A little more than two months ago, the Mavs vowed not to shave until they reached the .500 barrier. The win over the Hornets pushed the Mavs to 40-40, the first time they were .500 since they were 11-11 on Dec. 12, and Dallas pushed a few whiskers onto the floor inside its locker room. The first player to trim his beard was Dirk Nowitzki, who collected 19 points and six rebounds in Sunday’s win. “It’s been too long,” Nowitzki said. “Even my wife stopped kissing me somewhere in February. It feels good to shave again.” And how quickly did Nowitzki shave off his beard? “I did it in a minute or a minute and a half, and then I did the coach’s meeting,” Nowitzki said. “And then I ran back in right before the interviews and cleaned up the rest on my neck and behind the ears and the nose hair a little bit, and then I did the interviews.” Nowitzki said he used a small razor to get the fuzzy hair off his neck and chin.

  • Phil Sheridan of The Philadelphia Inquirer: Doug Collins told reporters anything other than the titanic clash against the Cavaliers was "moot," refusing to answer questions about his future as if they were somehow a product of the media's collective fever dream. John Langel, Collins' agent, stood up and declared that Collins would coach the team in 2013-14. "He's the coach and he's going to be the coach," Langel said, either lying or badly behind the curve. The Sixers honored their 1983 championship team on the 30th anniversary of its achievement, with Julius Erving pointing out that the team isn't going to find a better coach than Doug Collins. It must be noted for the record that Sixers owner Josh Harris was not available to the media, even though he was standing about 30 inches from Langel while the agent was spouting off. A little earlier, during the halftime ceremony for the '83 team, Harris had blurted out that the Sixers would "work really hard to make next year even more exciting for the fans." Really? Even more exciting than this debacle? Please don't set the bar too high. …Collins sounded like a man who was moving on. He just declined to say so. And that really is a shame, because he's otherwise been a standup and accountable and, frankly, admirable figure here. … If this is the end, no one is going to walk away looking good. Not Collins, who owed the fans and his players better. Not Harris, who looks like an empty suit. Not anybody.

  • Tom Moore of phillyBurbs.com: The 76ers haven’t publicly criticized Andrew Bynum during a season in which he was paid $16.5 million and played no games due to knee injuries. Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who is the team’s strategic advisor to the Sixers’ ownership group, didn’t hesitate to give his opinion on Bynum. Prior to the Sixers’ home finale, a 91-77 victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon, Erving was asked about Bynum, whom the team acquired in a blockbuster Aug. 10 trade. “I know what the net result is,” said Erving, smiling. “The net result is Robert Parish’s old number — 00. We have not benefited one degree. I guess he has. “If the Bynum situation is one of total uncertainty for another year, I don’t think the organization should stand for that or the fans should stand for that.” On the other hand, if the Sixers don’t re-sign Bynum or any of their other impending free agents, they could have about $12 million to spend this summer in free agency. “I think if he’s not here, you’re going to free up a lot of money,” Erving said. “Washington and Lincoln can’t play the corners for you, but they can get somebody that can play the corners for you. We need somebody to play a corner for us and play the middle for us. It’s going to be costly.” As for his role, Erving said he’s pretty happy with it, though, “There’s probably room for more communication.”

  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: The irony of the afternoon wasn’t just limited to both men playing so well off the other. The three-point barrage from both men also answered the major deficiency is each man’s respective games, DeRozan since he has been a pro and Gay moreso this season. As for being able to co-exist, well, the two think that theory has just about been put to rest. “People were saying that as soon as he came,” DeRozan said of the trade that brought Gay to Toronto at the end of January. “Me and him laughed about it. Before he came here Rudy was a good friend of mine. We played all the time in L.A., take Nike trips to China together and be over there for weeks at a time. It was funny when people were saying that because they really don’t know. They don’t know we understand each other’s games and that’s why it’s so beneficial.” DeRozan has no hesitancy is predicting many good things ahead for the duo. “We are definitely going to be something to be reckoned with without a doubt,” he said. “I don’t see any team being able to stop us, especially if we play the way we played tonight. We are just trying to get better every day and every game.” As Dwane Casey is wont to say, it’s a process, and right now the process is moving along nicely. As for Gay, it’s a case of the more the merrier.