First Cup: Thursday

  • Jim Armstrong of The Denver Post: "And now for a few words never before typed in this space: Kenyon Martin is underpaid. At least judging from his performance in the Nuggets-Hornets series, he is. Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony have scored more points, but the key to Denver winning the series was K-Mart's stifling defense on David West. Think Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. 'It seems like West is totally frustrated the whole series,' Anthony Carter said. 'K-Mart has been doing a great job on him one-on-one' -- as opposed to getting help, the customary approach to handling all-star big men in the paint. Martin hasn't just stopped West, who was 24-for-64 in the first four games. In the process, he has denied West's teammates scoring opportunities they're used to getting when the double teams come West's way."

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The wonder isn't that the Hawks have again taken a series lead. The wonder is that they were ever behind. They're so much better than the Heat it isn't funny. And they won't be laughing if Sunday arrives and they're back here trying to close this out in a Game 7. This one should end Friday night in Miami. We know the Hawks can play. What we need is for them to prove they can finish, that they can win a best-of-seven series for the first time since 1970, that they can dispose of a demonstrably lesser opponent and commence with the serious business of chasing LeBron. The Hawks have being waiting for April 2009 since Game 7 in Boston last May, and now it's here. And it's time for them to prove they're more than just a team that can give somebody a spirited run. It's time to put the Heat to bed, D-Wade or no D-Wade."

  • Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "There was a moment late in the first quarter, a timeout just ending, and Heat president Pat Riley sat 10 rows up among the fans in Philips Arena with one hand wedging a phone to his ear and the other motioning a few seats down to team owner Mickey Arison. Riley, grimacing, tapped his head. Arison, frowning, shook his head. The long faces belonged to the Heat again. The worries did, too. And it's a shame in some regards. It's one thing to lose, as the Heat did again to Atlanta, 106-91. It's another to lose without your best player healthy enough to play his best. Under the stands, in the locker room, Dwyane Wade's head was the topic of worry this night, and not his back like the other night. It was an open-court collision with Atlanta center Josh Smith that smacked Wade's head to the floor, taking him from the game, and not a back spasm that made him ineffective Monday. Either way, it's the same story. No Wade at 100 percent, no chance. None at all."

  • Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe: "As this series stretches to Game 6 tonight, we have a lot of fans and media members talking about exhaustion and minutes. Rubbish. Listen to captain Pierce in the midnight hour after he beat the Bulls Tuesday. 'You've got to understand, this is not -- when we grew up playing basketball, you may play like three or four games in one day.' That's it right there. Pierce is reminding us what Larry Bird said long ago and what players have been saying since the first ball went through a peach basket. This is a game. Players grow up playing the game 10-12 hours per day. There is no such thing as exhaustion when a dedicated professional athlete is involved in the second overtime of a playoff game."

  • John Jackson of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Through five games, the Bulls' series with the Boston Celtics has been an instant classic. Three overtime games (a total of four extra periods) and countless clutch performances have produced more mood swings than a truckload of antidepressants. It's not hyperbole to suggest the best-of-seven series could go down as the best first-round series of all time when it concludes. It's already the first series in NBA history -- in any round -- to have three games go into overtime. Except for the Game 3 dud at the United Center, the Bulls have shown remarkable grit and determination. Perhaps all that stands in the way of them having a chance to close out the series at home tonight in Game 6 is a decision by coach Vinny Del Negro not to double-team Paul Pierce late in regulation of Game 5 in Boston or a non-call by the officials in overtime on what should have been a flagrant foul."

  • Bob Ford of the The Philadelphia Inquirer: "When fans wonder why 76ers general manager Ed Stefanski took last year's pricey plunge on free-agent power forward Elton Brand - whose contribution to the team this season was both brief and uninspiring - Stefanski can direct them to film of the current playoff series with the Orlando Magic. What the Sixers have lacked in falling behind an underwhelming Orlando team is an answer, or at least the suggestion of an answer, to the low-post presence of Magic center Dwight Howard. They won't have that problem tonight in Game 6, as the league gave Howard the night off for the elbow tossed at Samuel Dalembert on Tuesday. Still, in a larger sense, the problem remains and the Sixers' solution has been found wanting. In the absence of a player who can assist the overmatched Dalembert with honest defense or accept the burden himself, the Sixers have gone to a cobbled frontcourt rotation that employs seldom-used retreads in Theo Ratliff and Donyell Marshall."

  • Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle: "If there's a surprise to this series it might be that the Rockets are a victory away from eliminating the Blazers in spite of Ron Artest instead of because of Artest. The Rockets have two chances to clinch this series. In reality, though, Game 6 is their opportunity. Otherwise, they're headed to Portland for Game 7 on Saturday instead of to Los Angeles for a second-round series against the Lakers. They need Artest to be Artest. He seems to be in the middle of every key stretch. He made huge plays in the fourth quarter to help the Rockets win Game 4 on Sunday. His late mistakes were costly in Game 5 on Tuesday. Now is the time for him to do what special players are supposed to do in such situations. He needs to be the player the Rockets believed they were getting last summer. This should be his time."

  • John Canzano of The Oregonian: "After Tuesday night's Game 5 victory, I didn't go to the Blazers' locker room. I didn't attend the NBA's customary postgame news conference. Instead, I went with the losers. Yao Ming sat in one corner of the Houston Rockets' locker room, arms folded, his giant feet jammed into a plastic tub of ice. He stared at the floor, concentrating. When Yao was done icing his feet, he groaned, lifted them out and peeled off a couple of rubber coverings that protect his toes from frostbite. Then, a trainer wrapped his knees with two gian
    t bags of ice and it started all over again. We've arrived at Game 6 of the Blazers-Rocket series. And for the first time since the playoffs began, it's apparent the Blazers' extreme youth is an advantage. Consider that Shane Battier sat across from Yao. He had bags of ice on his knees, too. Also, simultaneously, Battier's feet were in a bucket of ice. And down the way, Ron Artest was wrapping his knees. And while some of this is preventative, you can't help but think that the Blazers' fresh legs and lack of wear is now a wonderful tipping point."

  • Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press: "It wasn't a hot-button topic since the fate of Pistons coach Michael Curry had been widely reported for several days. But if there was any doubt, president of basketball of operations Joe Dumars let his feelings be publicly known when he was asked about Curry's job security at Wednesday's season-ending news conference. 'It's a non-issue,' he said simply. And with that, much to the chagrin of fans who want to blame Curry for this past season's 39-43 disaster, Dumars let everyone know that he had his rookie coach's back. It was the right call. Curry inherited a team at least capable of challenging for an Eastern Conference final. The core group of a team that won the 2004 NBA title and had reached the Eastern Conference finals six seasons in a row was poised to lead a repeat. Keep that core group intact, and Curry gets his 50-55 wins and probably advances to at least the second round of the playoffs. Had that happened, few would be dissecting Curry's coaching abilities. Instead, Dumars decided this era of the Pistons had run its course, so with an eye toward the future he traded stabilizing force Chauncey Billups for the Denver Nuggets' Allen Iverson."

  • Buck Harvey of San Antonio Express-News: "Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan always got along. Wallace also listened to Larry Brown because of their North Carolina connection. Doesn't that mean he would listen to Brown's protégé, Gregg Popovich, too? Little wonder the New York Times said this week to 'expect the Spurs to make a run' at Wallace. But no one is ever sure about the mind of 'Sheed. He can be a smart, entertaining man, and he's often played the game the right way. Still, if the Spurs went through a slump, would he quit or merely become toxic? Now his body is as suspect. Wallace looked as old as any Spur last season, and he sagged on defense. He couldn't show on a shooter and then get back to defend the rim; a lot of uncontested dunks followed. Cleveland or Boston might not care next season. Both might put Wallace in the corner and ask him to shoot in shortened minutes. But the Spurs need more. They need a well-rounded big man who can score, rebound, defend and help preserve Duncan."

  • Chris Colston of USA Today: "Any reduction of games would require a requisite cutback of salaries. No problem, says Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen, who is making $17.4 million this season. 'I'd give some of my check back,' he says. 'And I venture to say the quality of the games would go up another notch.' Portland Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy would take the corresponding pay cut, 'because it might add years to the end of your career.' And that's an important point, according to Celtics forward Paul Pierce. 'You look at some guys. After they're done playing, they can barely walk.' Philadelphia 76ers forward Elton Brand, who is making $13.7 million this season but missed most of it with a shoulder injury, spoke for many players when he said during the preseason, 'If they cut the games by a quarter, they'll cut the salaries by a quarter. If that's the case, I'll pass.' And some players have no problem with 82 games. 'If we're not playing games, we're practicing,' Toronto Raptors forward Shawn Marion says. 'I'd rather play than practice.' Says Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith: 'I love 82. If you love the game of basketball, it shouldn't matter how many games you play.'"

  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: "The Wizards are set at point guard with Gilbert Arenas, but who says Rubio and Arenas cannot share the floor together? Rubio is about 6-feet-3 and could serve as a setup man for Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. I also know Ernie Grunfeld likes the kid and was in Europe last month to scout Rubio and Brandon Jennings. But even if Washington secures his rights and decides it doesn't need him -- which might turn out to be a huge mistake -- the Wizards can easily move Rubio with several teams in demand for a special talent who can sell tickets. I don't think Rubio will make an immediate Derrick Rose-type impact as a rookie, but once he gains some weight and develops a consistent jumper, he could be truly special. He has a great feel for the game, provides flash and flare, and could be a marketers' dream. He also has long arms, big hands and won't back down from a physical confrontation. Foot speed? Present on the fast break; mostly present on defense (he was named Spanish League Defensive Player of the Year this season). Most NBA scouts love his potential. 'Any team that's going to be great is going to need a great one or a great five. You take Rubio at one or two and you're done,' an NBA Eastern Conference international scout said. 'One thing you can say right now, coming into the league, he can guard and he can defend and he's going to cause havoc. Offensively, he's got handle. Can he get better? Yes, he can. He's strong. Can he get stronger? Yes, he can. All his game is going to go is to another level.'"

  • Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: "Fresh in John Hammond's mind is his first draft with the Bucks last June, which delivered decidedly mixed results. Forward Joe Alexander, picked eighth overall, struggled throughout the season and never really fit in coach Scott Skiles' rotation. On the other hand, second-round pick Luc Richard Mbah a Moute impressed from the outset of training camp and wound up starting 52 games while defending against some of the National Basketball Association's premier players. This year's draft will not be mistaken for the 2003 version that produced serious star quality over the first 10 picks: LeBron James at No. 1, Carmelo Anthony at No. 3, Chris Bosh at No. 4, Dwyane Wade at No. 5, Kirk Hinrich at No. 7 and T.J. Ford at No. 8, taken by the Bucks. Even the lower half of the first round was strong that year, featuring David West, Boris Diaw, Travis Outlaw, Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard. But the depth of this year's draft has been bolstered in the last 10 days, with the somewhat surprising addition of the 6-foot-4 Rubio, an 18-year-old phenom who plays for DKV Joventut in Spain and is considered a certain top-three pick; and point guards Jonny Flynn of Syracuse, Ty Lawson of North Carolina and Stephen Curry of Davidson. The Bucks could be looking for a point guard and are sure to check out those players, along with 19-year-old Brandon Jennings, who played in Italy last season; 21-year-old Eric Maynor from Virginia Commonwealth; and 19-year-old Tyreke Evans from Memphis."

  • Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: "Kobe Bryant reclaimed his spot atop the most
    popular jersey list, according to figures released by the NBA for the 2008-09 season. Cleveland forward LeBron James was second, followed by New Orleans guard Chris Paul and Boston forward Kevin Garnett. Lakers forward-center Pau Gasol was ninth on the list, which is based on sales at the NBA store in New York City and nbastore.com. The popularity of Bryant's No. 24 jersey also helped the Lakers take over the top spot for team merchandise sales after the Celtics held it last season. Boston was second this season."