First Cup: Thursday

  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: A week ago, on our Thunder podcast, me, Darnell and Berry Tramel were chatting about the daunting upcoming schedule for OKC. Five games in seven days, with four coming against Western Conference playoff teams. And the Thunder entering the stretch playing its worst basketball of the year. We all came to a general consensus: 2-3 was likely, 3-2 was about the best they could hope for. Seven days and five wins later, don’t we look like fools? The comeback in Houston was wild. The shootout against Golden State was fun. The dismantling of Sacramento was methodical. The win over Portland was thrilling. The upset of San Antonio was more impressive than them all. Combined together: What a week for the Thunder. And now — without one of the top 10 players in the world — only a pair of Eastern Conference cupcakes (Boston/Philly: Combined record 29-57) stand in the way of a 7-game win streak.

  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: In the midst of hundreds of Israeli flags waving in the stands Wednesday night, Rockets forward Omri Casspi had one of his best games of the season. It was Israel Night at the Toyota Center on Wednesday, and Casspi gave some of his biggest fans quite a show. He had a season-high 20 points and tied a career high with 12 rebounds. There were 450 fans from Houston’s Israeli community in attendance, the Consulate General of Israel attended the game, and 3,000 flags were given out to fans as they entered the arena. Casspi gave a quick public address about Israel at halftime. ... Casspi was able to meet with several of his fans after the game. The Rockets’ hosting Israel Night is another example of how global the NBA is becoming, Casspi said. “It’s everywhere,” he said. “Here and overseas. It means a lot to me to play this game that can reach so many people.” Even better than playing the game is winning it. Casspi’s performance was key for the Rockets, who only had nine players available for Wednesday’s game.

  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Winning the dunk contest was one thing. Defending it is another. Terrence Ross is leaving nothing to chance. The sophomore swing man began working up some dunk options a couple of days ago. That’s well in advance of his preparation a year ago when he won it, but Ross says it’s all going to come down to the field when it comes to his chances of repeating. “It really just depends on whoever is there,” Ross said of the field for the dunk off. “Then you get a feel for what people can do or what sneaky things they can do and try and get away with.” The field has yet to be announced, but Ross, who has known since he won a year ago that he would be back to defend, has some general and very definite ideas of who he would like to see in the competition. First the general — “I don’t know, somebody I could beat,” he said laughing at his own little joke. Specifically though, the first name that Ross came up with in terms of guys he would like to see challenge him was Detroit’s Tony Mitchell. Now Mitchell isn’t exactly a household name in the NBA yet, but then again neither was Ross a year ago when he won.

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Luol Deng laughed good-naturedly when asked if he would consider re-signing with the Bulls. “Maybe they will offer me three years, $30 million,” Deng said in reference to the Bulls’ take-it-or-leave-it offer before trading him. The Bulls aren’t expected to be competitive for Deng in free agency. “What happened happened,” Deng said. “I love Chicago. There’s no bad blood or anything. For me to say I’m taking Chicago out of the equation, that’s stupid. I was there for 10 years.”

  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: In the final minutes of another disastrous Knicks loss, a fan shouted at Carmelo Anthony “Nice defense, Melo.” According to an eyewitness, Anthony shot back “Go f— yourself,” drawing a reaction from other fans in the area. After the game, a fan on Twitter wrote “Carmelo told me to F off. Huge Philly fan and I got in his head." Yes, the Knicks have hit rock bottom. Beleaguered coach Mike Woodson defended his defensive schemes before the game and then the Knicks continued to prove they can’t master them in a horrendous 110-106 loss at the Garden to the rebuilding Sixers. The Knicks dropped their fifth straight Wednesday as the Sixers racked up 61 points in the first half and held off a Knicks’ charge in the fourth quarter when they took a six-point lead and blew it. “Right now we are so tight," Woodson said.

  • Bob Ford of The Philadelphia Inquirer: David Stern hates tanking. He thinks it is bad for the players, bad for the franchises that lose in order to improve their draft position, and very bad for the overall image of the game. And, of course, he's right on all counts.Stern tried to fix the draft mechanism over the years to prevent tanking. The first year he was commissioner was also the last year the top pick was decided by a coin flip between the teams with the worst records from each conference. After that, Stern instituted the draft lottery and has tinkered with it ever since. It still doesn't work, because teams - like this season's 76ers - still view tanking as the only way of getting off what Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard calls "the mediocrity treadmill." You can't blame the Sixers, who traded away their best player for someone they determined wouldn't play this season, then constructed a D-League bench that assured them of losing a lot of games. With a strong college draft coming, improving their odds of getting a top pick makes all the sense in the world. But it stinks.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Ending the season’s first half against the NBA’s top team, the Suns authored a statement win with exclamation points Wednesday night when they made a league-leading defense look pedestrian in a 124-100 victory at US Airways Center. In half of a season, the Suns (24-17) are one victory off last season’s win total and showed how by scoring more against Indiana (33-8) than any team has this season. It tied Indiana’s most lopsided loss to Oklahoma City. With every starter and sixth man Markieff Morris (20 points) scoring in double digits, the Suns shot 54.2 percent against a Pacers team that came in allowing 40.8 percent shooting and 88.3 points per game. It was not only Phoenix’s best effort since Eric Bledsoe’s knee injury but arguably their season’s best performance, considering Indiana had won 13 of its previous 15 games. “If we could figure out a way to bottle this game for us, we’ll take it,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said of having a season scoring high against the No. 1 defense.

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: The Charlotte Bobcats are worth 30 percent more than they were a year ago, if you buy into Forbes magazine’s annual estimate of NBA team values. Forbes estimates the Bobcats are worth $410 million in 2014. That’s a 30 percent value increase from 2013, the magazine estimates. Forbes also believes the Bobcats made about a $7 million profit in 2013. Of course all of this is an educated guess. The Bobcats don’t have to open their books to anyone, including the city of Charlotte, which built Time Warner Cable Arena and allows the team to manage the facility at their own profit or loss. If the Bobcats are now in the black, that probably has a lot to do with the new collective bargaining agreement, which includes a more aggressive revenue-sharing system between big-market and small-market teams. It can’t be a coincidence Forbes raised the value of No. 29 Charlotte and the No. 30 Milwaukee Bucks by 30 percent each. If someone would pay majority owner Michael Jordan $410 million for this franchise, that would likely be a tidy profit for Jordan. He took over control of the team in February of 2010 from original owner Bob Johnson primarily by agreeing to assume Johnson’s debt service.

  • Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Paul Millsap speaks up - again: For the second straight game, the Hawks forward needed to gather his teammates and implore them not to let another late-game lead slip away. He did so during Monday's win over the Heat. While he said he wants to be selective about when he speaks out, he could stand by Wednesday. The Hawks lost a 19-point third-quarter lead and trailed by six points, 98-92, with 6:20 remaining. “I think it’s becoming my job, my 9-to-5," Millsap said. "We were falling apart a little bit. They were making a run. We didn’t just want to call it quits then. We needed to regroup and get back on the right track." Millsap also did his talking on the court. He finished with a stat line of 24 points, six rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals. “Paul, his effort, his leadership, I wish they could put a leadership column on our stat sheet because tonight when we got down it was Paul who pulled them together and kept our group together," coach Mike Budenholzer said.

  • Matt Velazquez of the Journal Sentinel: This season hasn't exactly been the homecoming Caron Butler expected. The Racine native came to the Milwaukee Bucks expecting to play a central role in the rebuilding process but has instead found himself averaging about 24 minutes per game on the worst team in the NBA. After letting his frustrations come out last week, the 12-year veteran saw just five minutes of playing time as Milwaukee's losing skid stretched to nine games with a pair of losses at Houston and San Antonio. Wednesday night against the Pistons, though, Butler finally had the breakthrough that both he and the Bucks needed. On the night that his bobblehead was given out at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Butler turned in one of his best performances of the season with 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists while playing 32-plus minutes off the bench to lead the Bucks to their first win of the new year, 104-101. "This is a special day for me," Butler said.

  • A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com: It just doesn't make any sense. On the road, without the starting backcourt, against one of the hottest teams in the East. It was only fitting that the winning shot in Boston's 113-111 overtime victory come from an unlikely place - Gerald Wallace. His driving layup with 2.5 seconds to play in overtime would be the difference for the Celtics (15-29) as they ended a three-game losing skid. Jeff Green was a monster on the floor, tallying 39 points with a career-high eight 3-pointers. ... But it is a tangible sign of progress, something the Celtics are desperately searching for in this season of struggle. "We're tired of moral victories and good effort, good game stuff," Sullinger told CSNNE.com. "We need to win a game, soon." They did just that on Wednesday as several Celtics chipped in for a much-needed victory.