Should we consider Boston a title contender now?

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The play for the first three quarters of this season confirmed the conventional wisdom going in — the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls were the class of the East, everybody else was a couple of steps back.

But in the past 10 days, the Boston Celtics have thumped the Heat twice. And although the Bulls beat the Celtics in that time frame, anybody who has seen Chicago of late and waited for the return of Derrick Rose knows the Bulls are not at their peak. They look vulnerable.

With their play of late, do we have to consider the Celtics contenders?

Yes. But for them everything needs to go right — health, good matchups. Which is pretty much what everyone said about Dallas before last playoffs and…

Boston has certainly hit its stride of late. That all starts with their defense — that has been their calling card during this run, it had taken a small step back in recent seasons but this year they are back to being the best defensive team in the league. When you defend like that, you have a chance every night in the playoffs. And Kevin Garnett is still at the heart of that (and he’s scoring well of late, too).

The Celtics also are getting great play from their role players — against the Heat on Thursday Greg Stiemsma was a force in the first half, defending at the rim and knocking down midrange jumpers. The emergence of Avery Bradley has allowed Doc Rivers to bring the scoring punch of Ray Allen off the bench, giving the Celtics frightening depth. Brandon Bass is an upgrade from Big Baby. Even guys like Sasha Pavlovic are stepping up.

Rajon Rondo keys the offense — he is the guy who has to create for others, to get some easy buckets in transition, he has to keep the ball moving. Boston has become an offense that finds the mismatch and takes what the defense gives them. Miami gave them jump shots, Boston was disciplined and knocked down the looks. Boston also runs some nice Paul Pierce/Garnett pick and rolls, plus they move off the ball well.

It may come down to matchups — Boston clearly gives the Heat trouble. Boston’s ball movement exposes the help rotations of the Heat, then Boston has guys who can knock down the jumpers. It was not a lack of effort from the Heat Tuesday night, they just struggle with Rondo and Boston. Chicago — from the same defensive school as the Celtics — may be a tougher matchup for the Celtics. And it’s also the more likely second round contest.

But right now, when you talk of teams that have a chance to come out of the East, you have to mention the Celtics. They have earned their way into the conversation.

Report: Warriors coach Steve Kerr not expected back to coach in first round vs. Blazers

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed games last year due to a back injury that gave him chronic pain. Kerr also missed Saturday’s Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers due to an unspecified illness, and reports out of Oakland are that Kerr will not return to coach the rest of the first round series.

What Kerr is battling is still unknown, apparently even to the Warriors. According to a report from the Mercury News, Kerr is having trouble walking and has been in excruciating pain.

Via MercuryNews.com:

Vague descriptions like “illness” and “not feeling well,” are usually a sign something is wrong. In this case, according to sources, it is.

At the worst of this current illness, Kerr was in excruciating pain, according to the sources, and he could barely walk. It was scary because it wasn’t a feeling he’s had before.

The worst part, the Warriors don’t yet know what is going. They had to say “illness” because there are no answers yet.

Kerr hasn’t felt well all series, according to people around him, and recently it become unbearable. It is unknown if these issues are even related to his past well-known health problems.

No matter your loyalty, I think we’re all hoping for Kerr to get an answer and feel better soon. If you’ve ever dealt with chronic pain it can be something that not only debilitates your body but grates at your emotional state, too.

Meanwhile, Kerr’s absence is a huge question for the Warriors moving forward. Last season it was Luke Walton who helmed the squad so well it earned him the head coaching position for the Los Angeles Lakers. But this injury comes late in the game for Golden State, and while they may be able to cut through the first rounds of the playoffs without Kerr, there’s no doubt they would rather have him on the bench for later rounds.

In Kerr’s absence, assistant coach Mike Brown took the helm for the Warriors against Portland in Game 3. The Blazers blew a huge lead they held most of the game as Golden State took a 3-0 series lead, 119-113.

NBA fines Chicago’s Rajon Rondo $25,000 for attempting to trip Jae Crowder (VIDEO)

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Rajon Rondo‘s end-of-season performance may have helped him earn a little extra coin this offseason. He’s certainly going to need it given that the NBA has fined the Chicago Bulls PG $25,000 after he attempted to trip Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder.

The league released the decision in a statement on Sunday morning.

The incident occured with 31 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 3, a game the Celtics won, 104-87. Rondo was on the bench, and as possession changed Crowder took a wide sweeping angle along the sideline, right in front of Rondo.

Rondo casually stuck his leg out as Crowder passed by, but didn’t seem to make any contact.

Chicago leads the series, 2-1.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.