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.

LeBron James: ‘The closeout game is always the hardest, and Boston is going to make it even harder’

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BOSTON (AP) — It took 10 games and halfway through the third round of the NBA playoffs before the Cleveland Cavaliers finally encountered their first true dose of resistance this postseason.

After cruising to a 2-0 Eastern Conference finals lead over Boston, the Cavs were humbled at home in a Game 3 loss, and needed a 42-point night from Kyrie Irving to battle back from a 16-point hole and win Game 4.

The chatter about an NBA Finals’ matchup of two teams with unblemished playoff records is gone, but the challenge from the Celtics has sharpened the focus of the defending champs. Cleveland is expecting another unflinching effort in Game 5 from a Celtics team that isn’t backing down despite facing a 3-1 deficit in the series.

“The closeout game is always the hardest, and Boston is going to make it even harder,” said LeBron James, who rebounded from a playoff-low 11 points in Game 3 to score 34 in Game 4.

James had been saying that he felt like the Cavs needed to go through some adversity after a blistering 10-0 start to the postseason.

The way they responded Tuesday night – particularly on the defensive end – is a good sign for their prospects of wrapping up their third straight Eastern Conference crown on Thursday.

Boston shot 47 percent from the field and 35 percent from the 3-point line in the first half of Game 4 on their way to building as much as a 16-point lead.

While Irving’s scoring ignited the Cavs’ comeback, it was made possible thanks to Cleveland’s defensive effort over the final 24 minutes. Cleveland limited the Celtics to 41 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc.

“We have to go in with a bunker mentality that we had in Game 1 and Game 2, to go out and do what we do, but we have to defend,” James said. “We have to execute offensively. We have to have low turnovers, and we have to try to make them miss because some of those guys play a lot better at home. That’s just how the game be played.”

If the Celtics were playing with house money heading into the series, they are flush with it again as they return to the Garden.

They’ve given themselves a chance to erase the sting of their 44-point loss in Game 2. The Celtics are also guarding against ending their season by having to watch the Cavs celebrate a conference title on their home floor.

Boston lost All-Star Isaiah Thomas for the remainder of the postseason to a hip injury in Game 2, forcing coach Brad Stevens to shuffle his lineup and rotations in Games 3 and 4.

In addition, Jae Crowder suffered a strained left thigh in the third quarter of Game 4 as well, but returned to play the entire fourth quarter.

It’s an indication that despite still being in a dire 3-1 hole, the resolve inside Boston’s locker room remains strong.

“We owe our fans a better performance, and we know that, and we’re going to play hard,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “You’re going to see a team playing hard, very hard, the entire game.”

It’s also why Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said that his team must keep all thoughts of being on the cusp of a return to the NBA Finals at bay for now.

“You can’t (think about it). As much as you want to, it’s not over,” he said.

If nothing else, Lue said their recent taste of adversity should help them remain humble heading into Game 5.

“I think it is making us better. And it’s making us tougher. It’s making us work,” the Cavs coach said. “Because they got a tough group over there. (Terry) Rozier is tough, Avery is tough, (Marcus) Smart’s tough. Crowder. So, they got a lot of tough guys that are going to compete so they’re making us compete, which is good for us.”

 

PBT Podcast: Celtics draft or trade? Carmelo future? All from your Twitter questions.

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What will Boston do with the No. 1 pick, keep it or trade it?

What does the future hold for Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks?

Is there a correct way to eat pizza? Actually, the answer to that one is yes, and it is not with a knife and fork, Donald Trump.

PBT’s Kurt Helin and Dane Carbaugh discuss all that that and more from your Twitter questions.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Lakers hire Kardashian trainer Gunnar Peterson

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LOS ANGELES (AP) A celebrity trainer known for getting the Kardashian clan into shape is going to work for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Gunnar Peterson is the Lakers’ new director of strength and endurance training, the team announced Wednesday.

Peterson has been a favorite trainer among entertainers and athletes for many years while running a well-regarded private gym in Beverly Hills. His client list has included Sylvester Stallone, Halle Berry, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara and Pete Sampras, along with most of the Kardashian family.

Peterson will develop a strength and conditioning program for the Lakers, general manager Rob Pelinka says.

The 16-time NBA champion franchise has replaced several key members of its internal staff since Magic Johnson and Pelinka assumed control of basketball operations earlier this year.

Report: Bucks interested in Cavaliers GM David Griffin

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The Magic hired Jeff Weltman, and the Hawks are reportedly close to hiring Travis Schlenk.

In other words, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin – who’s still without a contract for next season – lost his leverage with other teams.

But to the rescue are the Bucks, who will not necessarily promote assistant general manager Justin Zanik to replace Orland-bound general manager John Hammond.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Multiple sources told cleveland.com that the Bucks, who lost general manager John Hammond to the Orlando Magic this week, have interest in Griffin, 47.

Griffin and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have spoken about continuing their partnership in recent days, sources said, though no agreement was reached.

I still think Griffin stays in Cleveland. He helped assemble a championship contender, and he has LeBron Jamesendorsement. Plus, the Cavaliers can afford him.

But whomever gets the Milwaukee job will inherit a roster stocked with promising young talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. The Bucks wouldn’t be a bad fallback option for Griffin – if he can’t use them to get a deal with the Cavs.