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.

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.

Neil Olshey pushes back against columnist critiquing Trail Blazers’ culture

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John Canzano wrote a column for The Oregonian calling the Trail Blazers’ culture “busted.”

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest tweeted about the column:

And then Quick asked Neil Olshey about it in the general manager’s postseason press conference:

Olshey

I want to let you know I was completely oblivious to that until someone showed me your tweet, which I said, “I don’t understand what this means.” And I had to go back and read that.

I was glad that it was written by someone who came to two games all year, and clearly the motivation was to abuse his privileges as a media person with his pass so that he could get tickets for his relatives and pictures taken with the opposing point guard in the opposing point guard’s jersey. Because clearly, that’s an unbiased opinion, right? That’s an impartial observer talking about our roster when he has his nephew in a Steph Curry jersey taking pictures with Steph Curry. Sure.

You know, look. I’m very comfortable with where our culture is. I mean, look, you guys are around it. Hey, you’re in that locker room more than I am, right? I mean, quite honestly, you guys know. The day I stopped coaching, I haven’t walked into an NBA locker room. Not once. It’s not my place. When I talk to the guys, it’s out of the locker room. That’s their sanctuary. So, you guys know how close a group that is, how they feel about the coaching staff, the support that they get from the organization. They know we have their best interest at heart.

Last summer, when we had guys that their markets didn’t appear the way that I think maybe they anticipated they would. They were still taken care of. They wanted to keep here. When you look at guys like – look at Chris Kaman. Look at Steve, guys, how they were treated when they were here relative to maybe some other experiences they had had in the league. Everybody throws the word around, and like I said, I don’t hear a lot of complaints. And believe me, we have guys that – any of you that know Chris Kaman, if he had a complaint, he would voice it.

And again, like with Dame, hey, what does it tell you about an organization and an owner that, when you are in a starting lineup from the day you walked in and 80 percent of it is not gonna return, and on day one you sign on long-term? And then your backcourt mate, who is another star in this league never once said, “I wanna go somewhere to run my own team” and signed on.

And I think that’s where you have to look at it, is — and I’ve talked about this in free agency — look, I’ve got to do a better job selling our program, selling the organization, selling the city when we have the free agency flexibility. But I think what gets lost in that is the guys that wanted to stay and the guys that wanted to come back. I think you have to look at that also, that we don’t have guys – we lost one player.

Canzano addressed the gripe about his family member wearing a Stephen Curry jersey:

I bought a pair of tickets to Game 3 for my nephew and our church pastor. I had to work the game so I needed a chaperone to sit with the kid and the church youth pastor was all for it. I dropped them off in front of Moda Center and picked them back up after the game. The nephew, 11, likes Steph Curry and wore his Curry jersey to the game and the pastor snapped a photo of the kid with Curry warming up in the background. It was posted to social media. My nephew is in the foster-care system. My wife and I are his guardians. It felt like the right thing to do. Not sure why this is even a topic. Not sure fans care, either. But I suppose Olshey was trying to say that because my nephew wore a Curry jersey I couldn’t be impartial? I don’t know, and a waste of time to think about it.

That’s a more-than-fair defense. I wouldn’t get hung up on Canzano’s nephew’s Stephen Curry jersey.

But Canzano’s initial column left plenty to be desired. Most of it harps on how nice Kevin Durant and Curry were to Portland arena staff during the Warriors-Trail Blazers first-round series, as if that – not Curry’s and Durant’s generational talent and star production from Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – has made Golden State title favorite. Damian Lillard shaking a few more hands and C.J. McCollum issuing a few more than yous would not have gotten Portland out of the first round. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were notorious jerks, and their teams fared pretty well. Canzano’s juxtaposition also unfairly paints the Trail Blazers players as surly, which has not been the case in my experience.

The unfortunate part: Canzano actually makes a couple interesting critiques that are drowned out by the fawning over Durant and Curry shaking hands. Canzano contends that, because Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has cycled through so many general managers, Olshey knows his time in Portland could be running out and therefore contributes to a culture of fear and paranoia that permeates in numerous ways. I wish Canzano would’ve explored that in greater depth.

Instead, Olshey never addressed those concerns. He talked about how most Trail Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge the lone notable exception, have been happy in Portland and wanted to stay there – which is nice, but not really Canzano’s point. A team can both attract players and have a flawed culture.

Dwyane Wade says Bulls’ showers had no hot water in Boston

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The Bulls suffered a rough loss in Boston last night.

It didn’t get better afterward.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge – who played for Boston in the 80s – pleaded ignorance to any nefarious plumbing:

I think the idea that teams plot to shut off the visitor’s hot water is often overstated. Arenas have complex infrastructure, and things can go wrong on their own. Sometimes, the home team loses hot water, but that never gets remembered.

But reasonable excuses don’t make a cold shower in the moment any more tolerable.

Robin Lopez pushes short floater over backboard (video)

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Robin Lopez had reason to be upset from the Bulls’ Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night.

This miss was all on him.