First Cup: Thursday

  • Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: I’m still stunned. I didn’t think it could happen. I didn’t think anything or anyone could do it. But Scott Brooks and Kendrick Perkins did. They stole the spotlight from Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Seriously. It happened. Maybe not nationally. Maybe not in 49 other states. But in Oklahoma, where the Thunder passion runs highest, we know the significance of what happened down here in Miami on Wednesday. Brooks did something he’s done only one other time, something fans and close followers figured he ought to have done long, long ago. He switched his lineup against the Heat. He went small, matched up properly and watched his boys go to town. Because he did, one word effectively characterized this contest from the Thunder’s perspective: finally. Brooks sat Perkins as the start of the second half and went with Perry Jones III in his place. It worked like a charm.

  • David J. Neal of The Miami Herald: Wednesday evening’s downtown Miami rain lacked lightning. No matter. A big-game feel crackled about the arena area. Parking lots charged $5 more than usual. The bomb dogs sniffed laptop bags. And LeBron James dropped into defensive attack mode in front of Kevin Durant on the first Oklahoma City Thunder possession — hips low, arms wide, ready to stop or, heck, tackle. Only the late arrivers couldn’t feel the Serious Man vibe from James as he started down with the friend who covets James’ place atop the basketball world. For one night, Durant took it — being the best player on the court that included LeBron James and leading the better team on the court that included the two-time defending champions. Again, for one night. But it does show the gap between James and Durant once seeming generational in more ways than one, now might be shorter than the length of either man’s shooting arm.

  • Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times: Before Wednesday’s 96-86 win over San Antonio to start a six-game West Coast trip, Thibodeau was not only asked about the criticisms from outside the organization, but the ones from the inside. Specifically, Board Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf calling the team “mediocre" in a recent television interview. “Jerry owns the team so he’s entitled to say whatever he wants,’’ Thibodeau said. “If that’s the way he feels … and the way I feel about our team is this: It’s that I’m really proud of them and we can do even better. So I’m not selling them short." No, but a lot of others have been. Analysts Charles Barkley and Jeff Van Gundy each took shots at Bulls management the last week, with Barkley telling ESPN that if the franchise doesn’t land Carmelo Anthony somehow, “they are going to be irrelevant for the next few years." ... Thibodeau was then once again asked if he felt ownership was actually committed to doing whatever it takes to pursue a championship and responded, “As I told you, Jerry with me has been terrific. I don’t have any problems with Jerry. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made that are tough decisions, they’re not easy ones."

  • Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press: The Timberwolves went from young, charismatic and filled with potential to disappointing, soft and squishy. They officially have been reclassified as underachievers, which is quite a feat since they never have demonstrated the capability of achieving much of anything. So we're just going on rumor here. The preseason gossip was that they were supposed to be good. The question now is whether the pendulum will swing toward something a bit more positive. The burden of proof has shifted. All those who wanted desperately to believe now need to be convinced. "I know, it's been since Nov. 1 since we were two games above .500," said Rick Adelman. ... So is this really it? Are the Wolves about to get on track, or is this just the umpteenth false alarm? A victory over Memphis at Target Center on Friday really would put the team -- gulp -- two games over .500. That would be a big one. Or they could begin to slide sideways again. If they really are on the path to something good, they'll have to prove it. All that blind optimism has been slapped out of the fan base. Now it needs to be replaced by cold, hard results.

  • Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: Tidy. Efficient. No muss, no fuss. Been a while since a Raptors team made things as easy on themselves as this version did in a wire-to-wire shellacking of the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. Great start — and making nine straight three-pointers to open a game is actually beyond great — with no midgame blips or meltdowns, just a good team hammering a bad one in a 98-83 victory before an announced crowd of 17,694 at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors shot lights-out in the first half, shared the ball as well as they have maybe all year, dominated the glass and — most important — never took their foot off the pedal at all. In the grand scheme of things, whacking the 12-35 Magic is not the biggest of accomplishments, but the ease with Toronto did it was impressive. A team that’s been known to let fallen opponents get up off the canvas didn’t, a team that can take five or seven minutes off didn’t; they got up big, never let go and coasted home. And the tone was set, once again, by Kyle Lowry, who made five three-pointers in the first quarter alone on his way to a 33-point, 11-assist evening. It’s been said ad nauseam that Lowry deserves a spot on the Eastern Conference all-star team that will be announced Thursday night, and even though voting has been over for days, it was a performance that the NBA should notice.

  • Phil Collin of the Los Angeles Daily News: Doc Rivers got to make a couple of discoveries during the Clippers’ seven-game road trip and one of his favorites was veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu, who joined the team just in time to leave for the trip. “He’s playing great,” Rivers said. “I was even surprised in the first game by his ballhandling. Usually when you’ve missed the amount of games he’s missed, that’s the last thing that comes around because of the speed of the game. His passing — we run that 4-5 pick-and-roll, which is unorthodox — and he’s making passes that it looked like he’d been playing all along.” Entering Wednesday’s game, Turkolgu was averaging 2.7 points and 3 rebounds in 12 minutes. But his presence has been felt by the Clippers off the court as well. “The first game that he dressed, DJ came out and lost his mind over some play and before I got to him, Hedo ran out on the floor and grabbed him, told him he was wrong and let’s move on,” Rivers said.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: After appearing unrecognizable for most of the first half of this regular-season, the Grizzlies are on pace to return home from a three-game road trip with an identity that’s as strong as it’s been in a while. A rejuvenated defense and now the Western Conference standings are making Memphis look more like a playoff team each day. The Grizzlies’ 99-89 victory over the Sacramento Kings Wednesday night in Sleep Train Arena moved them to within ½ game of Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot. Mike Conley amassed 27 points and 10 assists, and Zach Randolph chipped in 18 points to guide the Griz to their fourth straight win overall, and ninth in the past 10 games. In sending the Kings to a fifth straight loss, the Griz improved their record to 24-20. “The chemistry right now is as good as I’ve seen it,” Griz coach Dave Joerger said. “We’re just trying to stay in the moment.” Joerger isn’t fond of constant reminders about the playoff picture, saying that watching the standings “just keeps you staying up all night.”

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: This was a special play, so Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford gave it a special name. "We call that 'Kentucky,'....Kentucky defense," Clifford joked of the game-saving block small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had in the Bobcats' 101-98 road victory over the Denver Nuggets. The joke is this was nothing like a "play," but rather an instinct, the kind the Bobcats hoped ex-Wildcat Kidd-Gilchrist would pull off frequently when they chose him No. 2 overall two Junes ago. With the Nuggets down two and possessing the ball with nine seconds left, Evan Fournier missed a six-foot jump shot. The ball ended up right in front of Denver center Timofey Mozgov for what seemingly would be a layup or dunk that would send this game to overtime. Instead Kidd-Gilchrist swooped in from behind, blocking Mozgov's attempt in what was probably his most consequential play as a Bobcat.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Guard James Harden missed a second straight game with a bruised left thumb. He is listed as day to day with the Rockets off until hosting Cleveland on Saturday. Wednesday's 117-115 win was the eighth game Harden has missed this season, with the Rockets going 6-2. He had missed just 14 in his previous four NBA seasons combined, including the four he missed last season. Guard Francisco Garcia missed his sixth consecutive game with a sore left knee, but he hoped to be cleared to play Saturday. With James Harden out, Jeremy Lin has moved back into the starting lineup and aggressively looked for his shot as he had early in the season, a turnaround the Rockets hope will continue. Lin had fallen short of 10 attempts in five of six games before Harden missed the back-to-back against the Spurs and Mavericks. He took 13 shots in Tuesday's win and 14 against Dallas.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Even though Suns guard Goran Dragic needed to wait until Thursday to find out whether he was picked as an All-Star reserve, the Suns figured they already had one player bound for All-Star weekend. To his teammates’ and coaches’ surprise, Suns center Miles Plumlee was not chosen as one of nine “sophomores” for the Rising Stars Challenge. “Worst snub,” teammate Gerald Green said. “There’s no way he’s not supposed to be there. That’s crazy.” The two second-year centers picked were Detroit’s Andre Drummond (12.6 points, 12.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks with 60 percent shooting) and Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas (10.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and 50 percent shooting). Plumlee entered Wednesday night averaging 9.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks with 51 percent shooting and plays for a better team. He ranked second among sophomores for rebounds, fifth for blocks, fourth for field-goal percentage and 12th for points. “I was looking forward to it,” said Plumlee, whose brother Mason was one of nine rookies chosen. “I personally thought I would have been in it. It’s just one steppingstone. There are bigger things out there to accomplish.” NBA assistant coaches voted for nine rookies and nine sophomores. Last year, the game had 11 of each.

  • Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer: Evan Turner came through in the clutch again. The 76ers swingman shook off Jerryd Bayless and made a seven-foot floating jump shot as time expired Wednesday night to give his team a 95-94 victory over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Turner also had a buzzer-beater against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 20. This time, it enabled the Sixers (15-31) to snap a three-game losing streak in what was a Boston homecoming for coach Brett Brown and rookies Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel. It also marked their third victory in nine games. "It's huge obviously," Turner said of the confidence boost. "We pulled through and came back from giving up a lead." One could argue that Turner won a game the Sixers might have been better off losing. That's because a loss would have kept them ahead of the Celtics in the lottery-pick standings. At the moment, the Celtics (15-33) are in position to secure a better spot in the lottery. That's important, because both teams are content with starting their rebuilding processes by sacrificing wins this season.