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.

2018 NBA Draft pick-by-pick tracker with analysis of selections, trades

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It’s been a long time since there was this much uncertainty at the top of an NBA Draft. While the top pick is a lock, and even No. 2 may have fallen into place, things are wide open after that with plenty of talk about trades up and down — and teams looking to move into the lottery. The NBA rumor mill has been in high gear.

Now the floodgates of wild are about to be thrown open.

Right here is the best place to follow all of it. Just keep hitting refresh all night.

We will constantly be updating this post throughout the evening — every pick, every trade — complete with analysis of how that player fits (or doesn’t) with his new surroundings. We’ll be on top of news, rumors, and anything else happening around the NBA tonight. Enough with the preamble…

It’s time to put the Phoenix Suns on the clock.

 
Suns small icon 1. The Phoenix Suns:

Last pre-draft rumor: Michael Porter Jr. is falling, how far will that be

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Michael Porter Jr. has long been the biggest gamble in the 2018 NBA Draft.

A year ago he was considered a lock top three pick in this draft. Now? Concerns about his back injury — a microdiscectomy that forced him to miss almost all of the college season — have given teams pause.

Those medical reports out of last week’s evaluation for teams in Chicago has Porter falling in the draft, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (while on Sportscenter). How far? Maybe all the way to the end of the lottery — the Clippers with picks 12 and 13, or even the Nuggets at 14.

It’s a far cry from Sacramento legitimately considering him at No. 2 a couple of weeks ago.

When things get tight, GMs can become risk-averse (they like to keep their jobs). Taking Porter in the upper reaches of the lottery and missing is the kind of thing that could have a GM on the hot seat.

Also factoring into this, rumors of an insular, “diva” attitude from Porter who has always had things focused on him. How will he handle not being the man?

That said, Porter’s physical tools and potential has teams drooling — he’s big and can score inside and out. He has the potential to be a very dangerous stretch four because he’s a fantastic shooter and a high-level athlete.

Some team is going to reach the point in the process where the risk is worth the reward. That may be Cleveland at No. 8, but if not it’s going to be interesting to see which team rolls the dice.

Austin Rivers opting in for $12.65 million with Clippers

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Austin Rivers‘ three-year, $35,475,000 contract caused resentment within the Clippers when his father – Clippers coach and then-president Doc Rivers – gave it to the guard in 2016.

But don’t think for a moment that will bother Austin into bypassing $12.65 million next season.

Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

That high salary will put a target even more squarely on Rivers’ back, but he’s used to it.

He’ll be overpaid, but he can still help the Clippers. Maybe that’s as an expiring contract used to facilitate a larger trade. Maybe that’s on the court. L.A. will reportedly drop guard Milos Teodosic. The Clippers, with the Nos. 12 and 13 picks in tonight’s draft, could select another guard, but few rookie point guards are reliable.

Report: Spurs ‘shut the door’ on Lakers’ Kawhi Leonard trade inquiry

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After shooting down trade inquiries before the trade deadline and brushing off proposals earlier this offseason, the Spurs are reportedly hearing out offers for Kawhi Leonard.

Except from the Lakers.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The Lakers are reportedly Leonard’s preferred destination. Of course, San Antonio isn’t obligated to send him there. But he can influence the process by stating a plan to sign with only certain team(s) in 2019 unrestricted free agency.

The Celtics and 76ers might have better assets to send the Spurs. But if only the Lakers have a commitment from Leonard to re-sign, they might offer a greater share of their assets than Boston or Philadelphia would (especially if Los Angeles believes acquiring Leonard would be the first domino in also landing LeBron James and Paul George).

Between Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and future first-round picks, the Lakers could offer roughly commensurate value for Leonard. San Antonio might not like those particular players, but a third team could always get involved. Send some combination of Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart to a team that wants them and have that third team convey players more desirable to the Spurs.

But that takes thoughtful negotiating, and San Antonio doesn’t seem interested.

There’s a belief San Antonio won’t trade Leonard to a Western Conference team, especially another historically strong franchise like the Lakers. That sentiment seems foolish to me, but it didn’t emerge out of thin air. There are real people – and real hurt feelings – involved here. Grudges sometimes trump rationality.

Maybe the Spurs will eventually explore whether the Lakers present the best offer. But this is at least circumstantial evidence San Antonio will handle this crisis stubbornly.