First Cup: Wednesday

  • Geoff Calkins of The Commercial-Appeal: The shot clock running down, the ball found its way to Marc Gasol a good 20 feet from the hoop. So he shot the thing. It went in. Whereupon, Gasol laughed, headed back down the court, leapt in the air and — there is no other way to put this — slapped himself on the butt. It was a joyful slap. It was a slap of pure glee. And let me just say that if any of you feel like leaping in the air and slapping yourself on the butt this morning, nobody will blame you. Big Spain is back. Or, as Pau Gasol tweeted, "Muy feliz de tener a @MarcGasol de vuelta!" I think that means that all is right with the world, at least that part of the world that dreams of set shots, devastating picks and sweet high-low bounce passes. The Grizzlies celebrated the return of Gasol from his bum knee with a heart-pounding, butt-slapping 90-87 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedExForum. ... There was relief and there was jubilation. The big fella is back on the court, and all things seem possible.

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: I’ve long said the Thunder needs a more structured system. Even with Russell Westbrook healthy. And I will continue to believe so until this team’s freelancing style wins a ring. We’ve seen it bog down before in the playoffs. So it isn’t like this stretch without Westbrook should be all that surprising. My stance has absolutely nothing to do with this stretch. This team has been overly reliant on two players since it planted roots in OKC. ... There’s no rhythm. No flow. No sense of what to expect and when to expect it. Consequently, players are having a hard time stepping up and supplying necessary contributions. ... But what we’re seeing now falls on Sam Presti. This roster, without Westbrook (and you could even argue with him) is flawed. It is void of capable shooters who can alleviate pressure from Durant and Westbrook. It was one of my biggest concerns coming into the season, and these first 38, again — even with Westbrook — have only confirmed what I thought to be true in the preseason. This team needs some shooters.

  • Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal: During his first two games with his new team, Deng had a soft 30-minute limit as part of a precaution given his recent Achilles injury. Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, the first game after Sunday's miserable 44-point loss to the Sacramento Kings, Deng played 38 minutes. The Cavs needed every one of them and every one of his 27 points in a 120-118 victory that was much more difficult than it should've been given the Lakers' injury-ravaged roster. At this point, however, the Cavs aren't picky. Every win feels like a big one. They've won three of their last four games and have doubled their road victories total through their first three stops on this road trip. ... As for Deng's minute limit? "What minute limit? We're trying to win baby," Brown said. "It's out the window right now. If I get reprimanded, I'll think about it later." Most players tried downplaying the importance of this game, but this West Coast trip began against the only three teams in the West with sub-.400 winning percentages.

  • Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: It was almost too bad someone had to win it. A pair of struggling teams barely played defense and produced plenty of unremarkable moments Tuesday night at Staples Center, the Lakers coming up with a few more of them during a 120-118 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. No real shock there. Lakers forward Pau Gasol was the master of misfortune in the fourth quarter, throwing the ball directly to Cleveland's Dion Waiters underneath the basket for a layup and later missing a pair of free throws. The Lakers somehow had a chance to send the game into overtime after Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson made one of two free throws to give his team a 119-116 lead, but Nick Young's 26-footer bounced off the rim with 9.9 seconds left and Thompson made another free throw to render Gasol's game-ending layup meaningless. It's been that kind of season for the Lakers (14-24), who suffered a fifth consecutive loss and 11th defeat in 12 games.

  • Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star: One of Frank Vogel's best attributes as a coach is his unwavering belief in his players. There was no question in his mind Tuesday night that Paul George would break out of a shooting slump against the Sacramento Kings. And he never flashed a look of concern when veterans threw a double-team admonishment toward Lance Stephenson during a very heated timeout in the second quarter. Vogel has provided the Indiana Pacers enough rope, created the space to be themselves and installed a winning mindset since training camp that has only grown stronger through the season. So after Tuesday night, when Indiana defeated the Kings 116-92, becoming the first Eastern Conference team to 30 wins but still standing apart with the No. 1 overall record and best winning percentage in the league, the NBA announced Vogel as the coach of the East All-Stars. Vogel and the Pacers coaching staff will be the fourth in franchise history to lead that squad.

  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: Derrick Williams is not pretending tonight’s game at Minnesota won’t be different from any of the other 22 games he’s played as a King. Minnesota drafted Williams with the second overall pick in 2011. And after never finding a consistent role with the Timberwolves, he was traded to Sacramento on Nov. 26. Williams said tonight’s game does mean more to him. “I think it does for anybody that gets traded and they play the team that traded them,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any extra pressure or anything like that. I think when you try to do a little bit too much, that’s when you don’t play well. I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and keep playing hard. That’s what coach is asking me to do and I’ve been playing pretty well.” Williams is averaging 7.5 points on 49.3 percent shooting over his last 13 games.

  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: The J.R. Smith-Mike Woodson feud escalated Tuesday, putting the future of the Knicks’ sixth man under a dark cloud. Smith didn’t play again, but this time the Knicks didn’t win again and afterward he called the whole thing “ridiculous." Woodson’s latest sending-a-message-to-J.R. ploy backfired on a night the Knicks needed a spark. But Woodson stuck to his guns and benched Smith, and the team’s five-game winning streak ended in a 108-98 defeat to the Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena. Wednesday is the first day Smith can be traded under a quirk in the NBA bylaws for 2013 free agents, but a despondent Smith had his bags packed for Indiana and flew with the club. His future, however, is in question as a viable member of the team after being benched for the second time in four games. ... Asked if he wanted to be traded, Smith said, "I’m not worried about that. I’m trying to fix what’s going on here." Smith, though, added he didn’t want to be a Knick if he can’t help the team. “I’ll figure out what I can do better to help this team and go from there,’’ Smith said. “If I can’t help the team, no point in me being here."

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: But this is what the Bobcats envisioned when they signed Jefferson for $13.5 million a season: A player who not only would score as consistently as any in franchise history, but also one who would open shot opportunities for teammates. It’s no coincidence the Bobcats shot 43 percent from 3-point range. The Knicks gave up that shot to give defensive help in the lane, particularly during the second half. Point guard Kemba Walker hit back-to-back 3s in the second half to break open this game. He finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists. “More and more, we’re learning to play together,“ Jefferson said of the synergy between himself and Walker. “Now we read each other; when I attack the middle, Kemba comes around,” presenting himself as a target for passes."

  • John F. Burns of The New York Times: As his team acclimatized to London ahead of their game against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday, the Nets’ Kevin Garnett tried another sports hot seat for size when he visited Chelsea F.C., long one of his sporting passions. Photographs posted on Twitter by the N.B.A. and Chelsea showed Garnett, wearing a Chelsea jersey, beaming as he snapped a selfie of himself sitting in the seat regularly filled in the Chelsea dugout by the team’s Portuguese coach, José Mourinho. Another shot showed Garnett holding a replica of the Champions League trophy, the pinnacle of soccer success in Europe, which Chelsea won in 2012. A reporter for the Nets quoted a giddy Garnett saying, “I’m like a kid in a candy store right now.” ... Both teams have Russian billionaire owners who have spent hundreds of millions buying star players in pursuit of championship success — in Chelsea’s case, Roman A. Abramovic, in the Nets’ case, Mikhail D. Prokhorov. Neither was present for Garnett’s visit. If there is any special rivalry between the two owners, at least in sports, it is one that is heavily weighted, for now, in Abramovic’s favor.