Brandon Bass,  Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo

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.

Kyrie Irving sticks water-bottle challenge before Cavaliers-Knicks buzzer (video)

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The Cavaliers were trying the water-bottle challenge on the bench late in their 126-94 win over the Knicks last night, but the national telecast showed Cleveland players only failing to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor – including an erratic attempt from LeBron James that bounced onto the court.

Thankfully, the local post-game show had an angle of Kyrie Irving nailing the bottle flip just before the game ended, his toss just leaving his hands before the final buzzer. Count it!

Nicolas Batum zips pass between Tobias Harris’ legs to assist Frank Kaminsky (video)

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Listen up, defenses: Nicolas Batum will throw passes between your legs.

Three things we learned Wednesday: Warriors, Cavaliers try to make statements in December

Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney, left, and Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford reach for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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ESPN thought they had a great double header on Wednesday, but those games were decided by a combined 49 points, you should have flipped over to Hairspray Live. Anyway, here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) You can’t have a statement game in December. But if you could Cleveland, Golden State made them. Can we just skip ahead to Christmas when these two teams finally play each other? Plus by then my shopping will be done, and I’m dreading doing it. We’ve said before the Cavaliers and Warriors have established themselves as the best in their conferences and they made that point with authority on Wednesday.

Cleveland did it thrashing the Knicks 126-94. To be fair, the Knicks were on the second night of a back-to-back and were without Derrick Rose. But that is a small part of the disparity here. First, Phil Jackson may want to not try to piss off the best player on the planet. Just a suggestion. Beyond that, the Knicks have had a good season (12-10), but they match up poorly with Cleveland. They don’t have a good defender for Kyrie Irving. Nobody has a good one for LeBron (well, maybe the Spurs). Kristaps Porzingis struggles to defend in space, and Kevin Love can exploit that. I can go on, but you get the picture. Between beating Toronto Monday and this, the Cavs are back to exploiting their advantages out East.

Golden State made its statement by blowing out a Clippers team that had been the second-best team in the West to this point. The Warriors did it with defense first — Los Angeles shot 39.6 percent as a team. Stephen Curry did a respectable job on Chris Paul (15 points on 14 shots), Klay Thompson blanketed J.J. Redick (just four shots), and Draymond was built to guard Blake Griffin (12 points on 20 shots, with seven turnovers). The Warriors anticipated the Clippers skip passes and turned those into transition chances (Golden State won the fast break points battle 27-11). The Warriors didn’t even have a great night on offense — Curry was 0-of-8 from three — and won 115-98 (and it wasn’t that close). Still, the Warriors ball movement was there.

Marreese Speights is in a unique position — the Clippers backup big was with the Warriors the past few seasons, and he was honest and harsh in his assessment of the differences between these teams.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo got a triple-double on an off night. He’s that good. Portland is not a good defensive team. Improved with Al-Farouq Aminu healthy and back on the court, but still not good. However, their defensive strategy of having their bigs play back and not press high off picks works against Giannis Antetokounmpo because you want to make him a jump shooter anyway — and the Greek Freak was notably frustrated at times Wednesday night.

And he still had a triple double of 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He’s playing that well. Look at it this way, in a Westbrook/Harden world Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging more than 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals a game this season.

The real story for the Bucks was the 27 from Jabari Parker, that’s the reason Milwaukee beat Portland 115-107.

3) Kemba Walker needs to be an All-Star, he got Hornets a win over Pistons. Charlotte shot 34.1 percent Wednesday night, no way they should get a win in that situation. But alas, there was Kemba Walker, who had 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter sparking a Charlotte win, 87-77. Walker is averaging 23.6 shots per game, is shooting a career-best 41.4 percent from three, has a true shooting percentage of 58.2 percent (well above the league average), and is the everything for the Hornet’s offense.

The man deserves to be playing in New Orleans in the All-Star Game this year. I know the East is loaded with quality point guards — Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall — but Kemba has earned the recognition this year.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.