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.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.