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Chicago early surprise of playoffs after taking two at Boston

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CHICAGO (AP) — For a team that bickered and barely made the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls are the early surprise of this postseason.

They hold a stunning 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Celtics as the series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Friday night.

“The credit through this team sticking together through injuries to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs goes to everyone from the coaching staff to the leaders to the young guys, everyone did it together,” Dwyane Wade said.

The Bulls took a commanding lead in the series with Tuesday’s 111-97 victory, and they come home looking like a strong contender to become just the sixth No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1. None has swept a top seed.

It was hard to see the Bulls in this position. They didn’t clinch a playoff spot until they beat Brooklyn in the final regular-season game. That put Chicago back in the postseason, after missing out a year ago for the first time since 2008.

The trip to the playoffs comes on the heels of a turbulent regular season for a transitioning team.

There was the big trade last summer when the Bulls sent hometown favorite and former MVP Derrick Rose to New York after going 42-40. Chicago also split with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, helping clear the way for young players such as Bobby Portis to get more time.

They brought in Rajon Rondo and then Wade in free agency, moves that seemed to go against the idea of getting younger. And even though they came with a combined four championships, neither veteran filled the team’s biggest need: better shooting.

There was a big flare-up in January when Wade and Butler teed off on the team following a loss. Rondo fired back while defending the younger players, and all three veterans got fined by the organization. Rondo was also suspended for a game by the team earlier in the year, and he was in and out of the rotation this season.

The Bulls sat him for five straight games at one point, but had him start 13 of their final 16 games. In Game 2, he just missed a triple-double with 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds. Just as important, he helped contain Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics’ dynamic, high-scoring point guard.

“He’s a confident kid and that rubs off on all the other guys,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s been in a lot of these big moments, championship experience and he’s going to continue to lead us as long as we are playing.”

At the moment, everything seems to be going right for the Bulls.

Butler is averaging 26 points through the first two games. The 35-year-old Wade is coming off a 22-point performance in which he scored 16 in the second half. Not bad, considering he missed three weeks late in the year because of a fractured right elbow.

The Bulls have also gotten big contributions from their role players and have pounded the Celtics on the glass, outrebounding them by 22 through the first two games.

Chicago got 19 points and nine rebounds from Portis in the opener. In Game 2, Robin Lopez chipped in with 18 and eight, while Paul Zipser scored 16.

“I’m just trying to shoot it with confidence,” said Lopez, who hit several midrange jumpers. “I’m sure Bobby told you the same thing. Whenever we’re passing the ball we’re told shoot it if you’re open. That makes it easy to shoot the ball. It makes it easy for it to go in.”

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Top-10 college recruit Anfernee Simmons may go straight to NBA

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A couple of years back, Thon Maker decided to play a post-graduate fifth year of prep school ball, not go to a major college, then jump to the NBA. He could because he had graduated a year before and was 19, the Bucks took him in the lottery, and so far it has worked out for everyone.

Now another recruit, Anfernee Simmons, may follow that path. Simmons is spending this year at the IMG Academy, and the combo guard is considered a top-10 recruit in this class.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN broke the story after speaking to Simmons.

“Some people have brought it to my attention,” Simons told ESPN during an interview in Connecticut, where his team was participating in the National Prep Showcase. “As long as the opportunity is there, I will do it.

“I can see myself going to the NBA combine, if I have enough teams to actually invite me or recommend me for the combine and enough teams want to bring me for workouts. I really need to hit the weight room hard and get a little stronger.”

This is a sensible approach — find out where you roughly fall in the draft, then make a decision. Listen to the teams, not friends/family/agents. If you have a first-round guarantee, then go pro.

Givony and others describe the 6’3″ Simmons as talented but still a project for the NBA level, starting with the fact he needs to get stronger (something true of most rookies). Not that it really scares off teams any longer, many are willing to develop and wait on a player with potential (he could spend a chunk of his first season in the G-League). Simmons is fast when he drives, and has a smooth release on his jumper. If he gets stronger and his game matures, a team may take a risk on him.

Shorthanded Cavaliers now without Iman Shumpert for 5-7 days

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Isaiah Thomas is still rehabbing his hip, he should return next month.

With him out, Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, except he has a sprained ankle that is going to have him out a couple more weeks.

That has forced Iman Shumpert into the starting point guard role in Cleveland, although he mostly is there for defense/shooting as the playmaking duties fall to LeBron James.

Now the Cavaliers will have to get by without Shumpert for a while with water on the knee, Cleveland announced on Saturday. He left Friday night’s Cavs win against the Clippers with a sore knee and did not return

“Additional examination and imaging today at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health confirmed left knee effusion. He will be out 5-7 days while he undergoes treatment and rehabilitation,” the Cavaliers said in a statement.

This is going to force Lue to play Jose Calderon, who he has kept glued to the bench this season despite the injuries. J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade will need to take on more run as well.

The Celtics have won four in a row — thanks to a more focused offense — and face the Pistons, Nets, and Hornets this week.

Joakim Noah on if he can play at former level: “Probably not. Probably not.”

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For three games, Joakim Noah has been clear of the 20-game PED suspension he started at the end of last season.

For three games, he has not even dressed for the Knicks.

This is the former Defensive Player of the Year who was already on the decline when Phil Jackson gave him a $72 million contract that is now the worst in the NBA. Noah is out of the rotation, where Enes Kanter starts at center (with Kristaps Porzingis at the four) and Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench.

Noah told Marc Berman of the New York Post he is frustrated but gets the situation.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right,’’ Noah said in his first comments since being reinstated. “I understand the situation. I’m going to make the best of it.”

When asked if he still feels he can be close to the player he was in his 2013-14 campaign, Noah said: “Probably not. Probably not. You know. I can help. I feel like I could help this team and that’s just my reality. But I just want to just be the best that I can be.

“It’s not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it’s not the reality.”

Noah is a smart and mature player, he understands his reality, and he has the exact attitude you want a veteran off the bench. He can help in practices, he can help because he understands how to play defense and can teach it, and eventually, he will get a chance on the court. He is not part of the future of the Knicks, but he can guide these young players.

The Knicks new management will look for a way to unload Noah’s contract, but considering the sweeteners the Knicks would need to throw in to get a team to deal for Noah, it’s unlikely we see any action on that front for a long time.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.