Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Keith Bogans

How they can win it all: The Chicago Bulls

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Coming into this season, the Heat, The Lakers, and The Celtics were supposed to rule the NBA. After 82 games, the Chicago Bulls are coming into the playoffs with the best record in the league. They don’t have as much championship experience as some of the other top contenders, but they’re talented, young, hungry, and ready to bring a title back to Chicago. Here’s why they can win it all:

1. Defense:

The Chicago Bulls are the best defensive team in the league. They hold teams to 97.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. They hold their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the league. Only Orlando allows a lower proportion of offensive rebounds. They rank #3 in the league in blocks, steals, and charges taken per 100 possessions. They rarely commit defensive fouls. They are a defensive powerhouse.

The Bulls don’t have one dominant defensive force like Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett, but they have an absolute defensive mastermind on the sidelines and a plethora of athletic and aggressive defensive players who can execute Thibodeau’s defensive rotations perfectly. They fly around screens. They trap ball-handlers. They close out the three-point line without selling out. They collapse in the paint and load up the strong-side while still being able to recover. They play defense. They love defense. Their 2nd unit is even more dominant defensively than their starting unit. They live to break the wills of their opponents. Any team that wants to get past Chicago is going to have to figure out a way to score on them consistently, and that proved to be a nearly impossible task this season.

2. Derrick Rose

He’s going to win the MVP award. Forget about if he’s the best player in the league for a second and focus on what we definitely know he is. He’s unstoppable when he drives to the basket, he’s an excellent passer and floor general, he can make a momentum-shifting highlight play at the drop of a hat, and he’s become a dangerous three-point shooter. He’s not afraid of the big moment, and he’s fearless in crunch-time, but he knows to pass the ball if that’s the right play. He’s young, he’s a physical specimen, he’s got the skills, he’s going to win the MVP award, and he’s ready to take the final step. Get ready.

3. Depth

Do the Bulls have A Dynamic Duo? A Big Three? A Fantastic Four? Maybe. Rose is definitely a superstar, Joakim Noah is a force on the boards and on defense, and Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are reliable players who can drop 25 efficient points on any given night. Do they measure up to Boston, Miami, San Antonio’s, or Los Angeles’ top players? It might not matter.

The Bulls may not have as much star power as some other playoff contenders, but they have what every coach and general manager should want his team to have: A 10-man rotation full of players that every coach in the league would want on his roster. Ronnie Brewer makes life hell for his opponents when he plays defense, can finish around the rim, and makes some of the best off-ball cuts in the league. Omer Asik is a defensive dynamo who chases after every loose ball and rebound like his life depends on it.

Kyle Korver is one of the purest shooters in the league and rarely makes a dumb play. Taj Gibson’s length, athleticism, and defensive instincts make him one of the best backup power forwards in the league. C.J. Watson can make open shots, run the offense without incident, and plays textbook-perfect defense on opposing points. Laugh at Keith Bogans all you want, but he knows what his jobs are and he does them well. When Kurt Thomas is asked to do something, he does it. Every one of the Bulls’ players knows what his role is, has confidence in his game, and executes his role to perfection. Having role players that just take up space and role players that know what they need to do to help their team win has decided many a playoff series, and no team has a more capable cast of role players than the Bulls.

The Bulls have the tools to go all the way, and they have the right mentality to do it. They proved just how good they are in the regular season; now they’re just 16 wins away from removing all doubt about their ability to be champions.

Why is Stephen Curry’s toughness questioned? Warriors coach Steve Kerr: ‘Because he looks like he’s 12’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media following their 96-88 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Fresh charcoal gray NBA Finals cap on backward and wearing a wide grin, Stephen Curry summed up his wild, up-and-down postseason so far and reminded everybody he’s not close to done.

The MVP’s got his groove back, all right – looking healthy again at last after dealing with a troublesome ankle, right knee sprain that sidelined him and even a puffy elbow from an awkward dive into the stands.

“Now we’re four wins away from our goal, and that’s a pretty special accomplishment,” Curry said Monday night after his Golden State Warriors wrapped up the Western Conference finals by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7.

Curry is taking the 73-win Warriors back to the NBA Finals with a shot at a second straight championship, his plan from the get go.

Golden State’s ultimate goal of a repeat title has been in the works since Day 1, even if the Warriors’ chances of digging out of a big hole against Oklahoma City looked dire just last week. His body beat up, Curry had no choice but to watch fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson and others carry the Warriors for much of this postseason run while he worked his way back.

It’s his time again.

Just as he did after the Warriors won Game 5 to stave off elimination, Curry chanted through Oracle Arena, “We ain’t going home!” as Golden State became just the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a postseason series with Monday night’s 96-88 Game 7 victory.

Curry and his teammates earned a day off Tuesday before preparations begin in earnest Wednesday for a Finals rematch against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost last season’s title to Golden State in six games.

For Curry, there’s just one more step to take to cap a remarkable, record-setting season.

The 28-year-old global superstar earned the first unanimous MVP award in league history, while also becoming the first player not only to make 300 3-pointers in a season but also 400 – he finished with 402 – before a series of injuries slowed him when it mattered most.

There was the injured ankle in the first-round Houston series, then he returned only to slip on a wet spot in Game 4 against the Rockets and sprained his right knee. He made a dive into the Oracle Arena stands against the Thunder and gave himself a puffy elbow, and for a few games Curry hardly looked comfortable with his typically breezy ballhandling and shoot-from-anywhere rhythm.

Until he did again.

His teammates have come to expect nothing less, even when Curry’s body is hurting and speculation swirls about whether he is playing somewhere around 70 percent. He has learned to block out the chatter along the way, knowing that just comes with being the best.

“That’s really one thing that I admire about him. He’s a person that’s never going to change for anybody. He hasn’t changed to try to prove anything,” said 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. “He just stayed true to himself.”

Curry scored 36 points in the deciding game while making seven 3-pointers and dishing out eight assists. He wound up with 32 3s against the Thunder, the most ever in a seven-game postseason series.

“I feel joy, for sure,” he said. “This is an unbelievable accomplishment, to go back to back to the Finals and continue this journey. So I’m kind of just taking in the moment and enjoying it with my teammates.”

And for anybody still questioning his toughness, Coach of the Year Steve Kerr brushes such things aside with another timely joke: “Because he looks like he’s 12.”

Perhaps it’s easy to forget how Curry led the Warriors to an NBA-record 24-0 start and a record 73-9 finish.

“You have an MVP, two-time, and what he contributes every single night and what he means on the floor for them, you just have to have your antenna up even more,” Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving said.

Four more wins, that’s all Curry cares about right now. However they come.

“The one thing with Steph is he understands that with all these accolades, MVPs, commercials, with all that comes great responsibility to his team, to the organization, the fans. He gets that,” Kerr said. “He understands that if you play poorly, you’re going to get blamed if you’re the star. He’s had a rough playoff go because of the injuries. I think he finally felt right physically the last couple games. And this is who he is. Having a clutch performance in a Game 7. That’s Steph Curry.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

Report: Kevin Durant’s agent told Celtics what players Durant would want to join him in Boston

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The Celtics believe they’ll get a meeting with Kevin Durant summer.

What gives them that idea?

Maybe preliminary conversations with the Thunder star’s agent.

Butch Stearns of WEEI:

I have this on pretty good authority. The Celtics have sat with his agent and other representatives of Durant. The Celtics do know — I don’t know who it is — but they do know who he would prefer to be brought here in a LeBron-Chris BoshDwyane Wade-like way. Because that’s how it works in the NBA. You need to know who the guy or guys that that guy wants, which would be a factor.

Now, I don’t know if Durant’s told them that. But the Celtics know. They know. They’ve been told what group of guys he would want to come here.

It’d be quite logical for Durant to send this request through backchannels. It doesn’t mean he’ll sign with the Celtics even if they add his desired future teammates. How many teams received the same list of players from Durant’s camp? But it gives him a potentially more appealing option.

Durant is so valuable, teams will jump through hoops just to increase their chance of signing him. He’s well within his rights to wield that power to increase the likelihood he finds the ideal spot. The more good options, the better chance he has of picking a great one.

The Celtics have plenty of intriguing assets – the Nos. 3, 16 and 23 picks this year, swap rights on the Nets’ 2017 first-rounder, the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder, a loosely protected Grizzlies’ first rounder and potentially enough cap space to sign two max free agents this summer (if they waive the unguaranteed Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and renounced all their free agents). But those assets just represent theoretical improvement to Durant, who wants to win now. Boston must prove it can flip the picks and cap space for capable veterans – more specifically, the capable veterans Durant wants to play with.

With that ammo, the Celtics could land plenty of players. If it means getting Durant, Boston should even offer more in a trade than the incoming player would be worth in a vacuum.

The Celtics aren’t devoid of winning players. They have an All-Star in Isaiah Thomas, who’s recruiting Durant. They just don’t have enough – not yet.

But it’s possible to see a route that leads to a quick roster upgrade and Durant signing. A longshot? Probably. But having a legitimate plan at this point would put Boston ahead of several other Durant’s suitors.

Of course, the Warriors loom, and I doubt they got this list. They’re already so good. The Celtics’ challenge is becoming more appealing than Golden State and Oklahoma City, and Boston is working from behind. But at least the Celtics know what Durant wants them working on, and they might have the assets to complete his tasks.

Tyronn Lue: Cavaliers want to push pace against Warriors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up for a dunk in the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Warriors have played 202 games in the last two years. Three of the 11 slowest-paced came against the Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals.

Cleveland successfully dictated the style for much of the series – grinding play to a halt, crashing the glass and relying on LeBron James to score against a set defense.

But the Cavs also lost, including all three of the slowest-games. So they’ll they try something different this year.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“We just have to play our game,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re not going to slow the ball down and be at ease. We’re going to push the pace, try to get easy baskets early in transition but make sure we’re taking good shots.”

“We want to push the pace!” Lue yelled in jest for everyone to hear. “You know what I’m saying. Put that on record. Push the pace. You think I’m going to walk it down every time?”

“We’re not going to be scared of their small lineup,” Lue said. “We’re going to play our bigs and if the flow of the game calls for something different, then we’ll do something different.”

Cleveland will try to out-Warrior the Warriors? Good luck.

Only the Thunder in the Western Conference finals did that for a decent stretch, and they couldn’t sustain it. Plus, Oklahoma City is much more athletic than the Cavs.

That said, I’m not sure the Cavaliers have a better alternative. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy, the Cavs are a different team from last year. Irving and Love aren’t built to play slow.

And that’s the dilemma. Cleveland can have its top talent or its ideal style for combatting Golden State – but probably not both. The Cavaliers are choosing talent.

Isaiah Thomas recruits Kevin Durant to Celtics, deletes tweet

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics reacts as he walks to the bench in the final minutes of their 89-72 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Isaiah Thomas pledged to put on his recruiting hat for the Celtics this summer.

He didn’t wait long until Boston target Kevin Durant reached his offseason to send a public message.

Thomas deleted the tweet, but not before Adam Kauffman of WBZ News Radio captured it:

This is how free agency works now. It’d be tampering for Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to talk or tweet about Durant until the star’s Thunder contract expires July 1. But the NBA doesn’t enforce tampering rules on inter-player communication. So, general managers deploy players to pitch pending free agents before July.

Thomas just needs to work on his execution.

The Celtics retired No. 35 for Reggie Lewis, who died at age 27 due to a sudden heart issue. So, Durant would have to change his number if he signed in Boston. No. 35 already has a different, and special, meaning there.

Plus, Durant might not take kindly to potential suitors swarming so soon after the Thunder were eliminated. Whatever he does in the summer, Durant wanted to win with Oklahoma City this season.

But don’t expect this to be the last  you hear of the Celtics in the Durant sweepstakes.