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Three Things to Know: Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams? Things didn’t look promising Tuesday. The Celtics were the preseason favorite to be the top seed in the East because they had depth, they were going to have versatility because of that depth, because their young players were going to keep improving, because they were going to have a star with the ball in his hands taking them to the next level, and because we knew their defense was going to be good.

Turns out that actually describes the Milwaukee Bucks. And the Toronto Raptors.

Those are two teams who have beaten the Celtics since the All-Star break — Toronto blew Boston out on Tuesday night, turning and 18-0 second-quarter run into a 118-95 victory.

It’s led to a lot of questions about where Boston really fits in the pecking order at the top of the East. And there are no easy answers.

In Boston’s wins against Toronto earlier in the season it was the Kyrie Irving show but he seemed passive Tuesday, which led Boston to a more balanced attack this time around — and it backfired. They shot 6-of-30 from three and could not find an offensive groove. It was ugly. That happens, there are bad games and the Raptors are an elite team. What was concerning was the way the Celtics seemed to just roll over and accept their fate Tuesday night.

What’s concerning is this team has still not gelled 61 games into the season.

Also concerning: The look on Irving’s face.

Most concerning, however, is through their past 10 games the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the league. This was supposed to be Boston’s calling card, and while Boston has the fifth best defense in the NBA for the season we have not seen that of late. Their strength isn’t there to bail them out on the nights the shots don’t fall.

Which leads to the questions: Just how good are the Celtics? Where do they rank in the East?

If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t even have home court in the first round. On the season, Boston is 2-10 on the road against teams better than .500. Still, there seems to be an internal level of confidence in the Celtics’ locker room. After a recent loss Kyrie Irving said this was just the regular season and when it came time to focus, when they drilled down on matchups against one team in the playoffs, the Celtics would be fine. Essentially, a flip the switch moment.

Can they really? Right now, the signs are not promising as teams start to gear up for their playoff run.

2) Denver turns out to be a matchup nightmare for Oklahoma City. Remember above I wrote we thought Boston would have depth, be versatile, their young players were going to step up, their star was going to lift them to the next level, and their defense was going to be good? That also describes the Denver Nuggets this season. Oh, and they have Isaiah Thomas.

That Nikola Jokic has stepped up to an All-Star — and likely All-NBA — is not a surprise, he’s been on that trajectory for years. What is a surprise is just how good Denver’s defense has become — top 10 in the NBA on the season, and in the last five games they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7, best in the NBA in that stretch).

That includes handling the Thunder 121-112 Tuesday night. Jokic led the way with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, and he heard MVP chants from the Denver faithful.

Paul George was putting up some highlight plays, but it wasn’t enough.

It is very possible these teams meet in the second round of the playoffs, and if that happens I’d be worried if I were a Thunder fan. Through three meetings this season, the Thunder have led for 12 minutes of game time, the Nuggets for 85. Ouch. Regular season games do not project postseason ones nearly as well as fans want them to, but when one team seems to have the other’s number that is a sign.

3) Break up the Knicks, they have won three of four. Tanking for Zion? There will be none of that in Madison Square Garden…

Well, there kind of is. The Knicks do have the second-worst record in the NBA, giving them as good a shot as anyone at landing the top pick in the draft and the rights to the Duke superstar (a 14 percent chance, but that’s as good as it gets with the new lottery odds).

New York, however, is not limping into the end of the season. Orlando came into Madison Square Garden having won 8-of-9 and is fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but New York got great play from their bench and got the win 108-103. Not one Knicks starter scored in double figures, but Emmanuel Mudiay had 19 points off the bench, Allonzo Trier added 18, and the biggest stud of the night was rookie Mitchell Robinson who had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks.

The Knicks are still going to have great lottery odds (they would need to make up three games on the Bulls — who have played well as of late also — to fall out of the bottom three and not have their 14 percent odds at the top slot). However, it’s good for the franchise to see the team’s young players show some grit down the stretch.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.