Boston looks like a title contender in win. Orlando? We’re not sure.

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The big news out of this game is the situation involving Marquis Daniels injury — he had to be taken off the court on a stretcher — which we cover in detail here and will follow going forward.

Boston is a title contender in the NBA — that’s never been in question and why was in evidence Sunday against the Orlando Magic. The Celtics have the stifling defense, they have a lot of ways to score, they have the depth.

Can Orlando — even after their big trade — say the same thing? I don’t know.

One game in February does not a contender make or break. And the Magic have quality wins against the Heat and Celtics and Lakers.

But watching how Boston beat them on Sunday, 91-80, combined with how Miami beat them earlier in the week, the question is can these new parts come together into a real contender? Sure, they will be good, at times very good. But can they be good enough? Or is the Eastern playoff seeding going to be a matter of matchups, with teams able to beat one of the elite but not another?

What Boston was able to do — something few teams can — is single cover Dwight Howard, usually with Kendrick Perkins (Glenn Davis got time, too). In the first half Orlando was able to exploit that.

The knock on Howard for many years was that he didn’t have enough moves in his offensive arsenal, that he was just power. Not anymore. The guy has drop steps, up-and-under moves, spins, a jump hook and more. He showed all that off getting 22 points in the first half while Perkins was as physical with him as the refs would allow (which was a little short of an MMA pay-per-view but not that far off).

However, while Howard was hot the Celtics took away the open threes he is supposed to create, the other half of Orlando’s offense. The Magic were 1-9 from three in the first half and that’s why they trailed 46-43 (with Howard having more than half their points).

For the game Orlando was 3-of-24 from three. J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu were a combined 0-8 from three.  A lot of that was good defense by the Celtics, who contested and forced Magic shooters to rush. Part of it was the Magic were just off and missing shots they hit most nights.

Despite the defense Orlando was out to the early lead as Boston struggled against a good Magic defense. Boston was just 4-of-14 shooting in the first quarter with 7 turnovers.

But two things changed as the game went on. One was Rajon Rondo, who started getting into the teeth of the Magic defense and making plays with shots and passes. He took over and controlled this game. Orlando did a good job taking away most of Boston’s preferred offensive options, until Rondo started to single handedly change that. He finished with 26 points and 7 assists.

Bottom line, Boston was able to adjust offensively in a way Orlando never could.

The other thing was that Howard went cold in the second half. The physicality of Boston’s defense and Perkins in particular seemed to wear him down. He had just four second half points and missed some chippy put-backs.

Orlando is still trying to fit all its new pieces together. It got nothing out of a seemingly hobbled Gilbert Arenas (0-7). They are forced to play Earl Clark 15 minutes a night right now with Brandon Bass out and that’s less than ideal.

But this game leaves you wondering if the Magic could beat the Celtics in a seven-game series? Of course, could Miami deal with Orlando’s size inside over seven games? And just how good is Chicago?

There are a lot of questions left in the East. But right now Boston is the measuring stick and it sure looked like Orlando will have a hard time matching up in May.

Isaiah Thomas not happy to be benched in Denver, still working to find way back

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Isaiah Thomas is frustrated and nobody can blame him.

Just a couple of seasons back he was fifth in the MVP voting and was lined up for a “back up the Brink’s truck” payday, but he tried to play through a hip injury that eventually required surgery and nobody stepped up with a payday. This season in Denver, on a one-year minimum contract, he was given plenty of time to get his body right, but when he came back he wasn’t helping a team thinking deep playoff run. Thomas averaged 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Coach Mike Malone couldn’t keep Monte Morris — who is a Most Improved Player candidate with his play this year — on the bench while Thomas worked things out, and IT has been moved out of the rotation.

That doesn’t mean he took the news well. From Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

It’s very possible we’ve seen peak Thomas. That doesn’t mean most of the NBA is rooting to be proved wrong on that — I’m among many who want to see him succeed.

Hopefully next season he lands somewhere and really gets that chance. Denver became too good too fast to really be that place for him this season.

 

Celtics, Nuggets look ahead to playoffs, not to past meeting

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — November was a long time ago, so chances are the Boston Celtics have gotten over Jamal Murray‘s antics from the first time they played the Denver Nuggets.

Then again, NBA players have long memories.

Murray scored 48 points in the Nuggets’ 115-107 in Denver on Nov. 5 and jacked up a last-second 3-pointer to try to reach 50. Boston guard Kyrie Irving wasn’t happy and threw the basketball into the stands after the buzzer, drawing a fine.

After the game, Murray acknowledged he got caught up in the moment, and Irving said there would be no hangover.

“What kind of competitor wouldn’t it bother? I was (mad), but we’re not going to make a big thing about it,” he said that night.

Irving can prove there are no hard feelings when the teams meet in Boston on Monday night. In fact, the Celtics might be thanking the Nuggets for helping them in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Denver beat the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night while Boston was taking care of Atlanta, allowing the Celtics to move within a game of the Pacers for the fourth seed.

Boston (43-27) has two more games against Indiana but the Nuggets are the immediate priority. The Celtics have bigger concerns than payback for Murray, too. Center Al Horford left Saturday’s game after he banged his knee but was able to return, while forward Gordon Hayward left in the first half with a strained neck and didn’t return.

Horford appeared fine but Boston is trying to manage his minutes down the stretch. Hayward’s status for Monday is unknown after colliding with Atlanta forward John Collins. Coach Brad Stevens said after the game that Hayward was woozy at halftime.

“You could see right away that it was quite a hit,” Stevens said.

Denver has dealt with injuries all season but is finally fully healthy. Despite that, the Nuggets have struggled the past two-plus weeks, going 4-4 since Feb. 28 and needing late-game heroics to pull out two home wins.

All-Star Nikola Jokic hit a game-winner against Dallas on Thursday, and Saturday it was Paul Millsap saving the day. Denver (46-22) is securely in second place in the West as it starts a four-game trip through the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to a 12-3 record in games decided by three or fewer points.

“It’s great. Those are the moments that make the team,” Millsap said of the close victories. “It shows the type of character we have, it shows the type of team we have. Those situations can make or break a team and we’ve been able to thrive off of it.”

Jokic has been the catalyst, leading the team in scoring (20.3), rebounds (10.7) and assists (7.6). He showed his temper Saturday when he got ejected with 2:56 left and Denver leading by seven. Indiana rallied to tie it only to have Millsap hit the winning layup with seven seconds left.

“(We’re) talking about an All-Star guy who gets knocked around a lot, but through it all he (does) have to keep his composure, fight through it,” Millsap said. “Playoff atmosphere. Plays like that are going to happen, you’re not always going to get the call, you just have to fight through it.”

Monday’s game could be the first Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas plays at TD Garden since he was traded to Cleveland 18 months ago. Thomas led Boston to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals but was dealt for Irving in the offseason, and then to the Los Angeles Lakers during last season.

Hip surgery kept him out until just before the All-Star break. He played in nine games before being out of the rotation the last three heading into Boston.

Kevin Durant to return to Warriors vs. Spurs Monday, Bogut to make (another) debut

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Kevin Durant missed two games with a tweaked ankle, and the Warriors beat the Rockets and Thunder — maybe their two biggest threats in the West — anyway.

Now he is back, starting Monday night against the Spurs. Coach Steve Kerr confirmed the news, reports NBC Sports Bay Area, adding that Kerr said Durant could have played Saturday against Oklahoma City if it had been a playoff game, but the Warriors decided to be cautious.

“I’m excited to play again,” Durant said following Monday’s shootaround in San Antonio.

Golden State will be without DeMarcus Cousins for Monday’s game, but the team got good news about his ankle injury, he is listed as day-to-day and should return soon.

With Durant out, Andrew Bogut has been pressed into action sooner than the Warriors wanted. The plan had been to let him sit out until the Warriors return home from their current road trip, but now Bogut is in San Antonio and will play tonight, Kerr said to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I’m going to play him,” Kerr said Monday. “Without DeMarcus, we’ve got to guard LaMarcus Aldridge, so [Kevon] Looney can guard LaMarcus, Draymond [Green] but Bogut will be out there at some point.”

Report: Former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg frontrunner at Nebraska

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After getting fired as Bulls coach, Fred Hoiberg was reportedly drawing consideration from the Timberwolves – for coaching or the front office. Minnesota could undergo a major overhaul post-Tom Thibodeau.

Hoiberg said he preferred to coach. The former Iowa State coach also said he’d weigh pro and college opportunities.

A college offer could come first.

Jeff Goodman of Stadium:

Frontrunner to get offered the job or frontrunner to fill the job? There’s a big difference.

I would’ve thought Hoiberg could get a better college gig. But I also don’t know much how much money Nebraska is offering or how Hoiberg values that position. He was born in Lincoln and grew up rooting for Nebraska football. His grandfather, Jerry Bush, coached the Cornhuskers basketball team.

Hoiberg shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for an NBA head-coaching job. He didn’t distinguish himself in three-plus seasons in Chicago. Maybe he would’ve looked better with better players, or even better-fitting players. But NBA coaches rarely get to pick their roster. They must adjust better to the personnel they have.

I also wouldn’t rule out Hoiberg getting another NBA head-coaching job. Few, if any coaches, would have won with those Bulls. Another NBA team could give him another chance – if he doesn’t take the Nebraska job first.