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LeBron James (36), Cavaliers pummel Celtics to claim first place in Eastern Conference 04.05.17 at 11:18 pm ET
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Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) works the ball against Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) on Wednesday. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) works the ball against Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) on Wednesday. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics arrived at the Garden on Wednesday believing they could claim sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. They left licking their wounds after being routed by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Behind 36 points from LeBron James and a suffocating defensive effort — not to mention a domination of the boards — the Cavaliers cruised to a 114-91 victory that gave them first place in the East with four games left to play.

The Celtics led 20-19 after one, but Cleveland (51-27) took control with a 38-point second quarter to open a 57-42 halftime lead and the C’s never seriously threatened.

Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics (50-28) with 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting, but he got absolutely no help from his supporting cast. The C’s shot just 7-for-33 on 3-pointers (.212) and put only three other players in double figures, led by Jae Crowder’s 13.

The Celtics were outrebounded 51-38 and allowed Kevin Love to grab 16 boards alongside his 15 points.

For more on the game, including how badly it exposed the Celtics as playoff pretenders, check out this column.

Read More: Cavaliers, Celtics, Eastern Conference standings, Isaiah Thomas
Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley return to lineup for Celtics against Cavaliers, who will be without big man Tristan Thompson 04.05.17 at 8:01 pm ET
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LeBron James is always a challenge.  (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

LeBron James is always a challenge. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

For most, Wednesday’s showdown between the Celtics and Cavaliers is considered Boston’s most important game of the season. 

But for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, this battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference is just another game. 

With Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder both expected to start, Stevens’ starting five will be at full strength against the champion Cavaliers, who will be playing without big man Tristan Thompson (sprained thumb). But according to Stevens, preparation for taking on the champs is no different than any other opponent. Both squads are 50-27.

“We don’t talk big game/small game, we talk about the next game and trying to do the best that we can against our opponent,” Stevens said. “I know that sounds really boring but that’s the way I look at it — the way I go about it. These have all grown up playing big games their whole lives.”

After some speculation of whether coach Ty Lue would rest his guys, the Cavaliers are expected to start all of their big three members in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. However, Stevens says Cleveland’s second unit — which has been plagued by injuries since the All-Star break — is often overlooked.

“Those guys are great players,” Stevens said. “No one talks about it, but when we beat them, they didn’t have [J.R.] Smith. They’re going to continue to round in form as those guys are back playing together and now their getting fully healthier with [Kyle] Korver back and everyone else. It’s a really tough team to play against.”

Having Crowder back definitely helps.

“I just think Jae’s really important in general because he allows us what we just talked about with Cleveland,” Stevens explained. “Cleveland is — obviously Golden State, maybe a couple of others — the best at being able to play a bunch of different ways and Jae allows us to play different ways because of his ability to play both the 3 and swing to the 4.”

When asked about the possibility of resting his guys before the start of the postseason, Stevens said he’s given it very little thought, but will continue to check in with his medical staff and make sure his team is at full strength come playoff time.

Read More: Cavaliers, Celtics, Eastern Conference standings, Jae Crowder
LeBron James dismisses matchup against Celtics: ‘I’ve been to six straight NBA Finals’ 04.05.17 at 10:09 am ET
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LeBron James doesn't appear excited about facing the Celtics Wednesday. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

LeBron James doesn’t appear excited about facing the Celtics Wednesday. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics and Cavaliers, who are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, will match up with each other at T.D. Garden Wednesday. It’s a big game as far as regular season contests are concerned, but don’t tell that to LeBron James.

In an interview following the Cavaliers’ win over the Magic Tuesday, James downplayed the importance of the affair.

“I don’t know, I’ve played in a lot of big games man,” he said. “I don’t … I’m the last person to ask about a big game in the regular season. I’m sorry.” 

It’s understandable if James holds a jaded view about the importance of regular season basketball. The Cavaliers narrowly edged out the Raptors for the No. 1 seed last season, but wound up bulldozing their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Cleveland came back from a 3-1 deficit to oust the Warriors in the NBA Finals, largely thanks to an otherworldly effort from James. He averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game over the final three games to secure his third title. 

After a fast start this season, the Cavaliers have slumped since the All-Star Break. They’re 9-10 since March 1 and had the worst defense in the league last month as well. James lost his temper earlier this week when he started screaming at forward Tristan Thompson following a defensive lapse in the waning moments of Cleveland’s double overtime win Sunday over the Pacers. 

Though the Cavaliers have taken to resting their stars down the stretch, James played 37 minutes Tuesday against the lowly Magic. So maybe Cleveland wants to finish strongly heading into the playoffs, even if James won’t admit it. 

“Taking nothing from [the Celtics], they’ve been playing some great ball, but like I said, I’m not one to get caught up in regular season big games,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been to six straight [NBA] Finals, man. I’m the last person to ask about a regular season game, dude. Sorry.”

Read More: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James,
LaVar Ball on ‘Dale & Holley with Keefe:’ I would prefer Lonzo Ball play for the Lakers 03.30.17 at 3:18 pm ET
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LaVar Ball said Thursday he would prefer his son play for the Lakers. (Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports)

LaVar Ball said Thursday he would prefer his son play for the Lakers. (Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports)

If the Celtics draft UCLA standout Lonzo Ball this spring, his father would probably be disappointed. 

In an interview Thursday on Dale & Holley with Keefe, LaVar Ball said his preference is for Lonzo to wind up with their hometown Lakers. Listen to the full interview on the Dale & Holley audio on demand page.

“I want him to be a Laker. But that’s just my opinion,” he said. “It wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh man he gotta go to Boston.’ I’d love him to stay in LA. But that’s just me though.”

LaVar Ball went on to say he wants his son to play for the Lakers, because he wants to keep the family together. 

“It’s not about me liking [the Celtics] or disliking them. It’s just that we’re west coast guys,” he said. “I’d love for him to stay on the west coast where his brothers can see him all of the time. We’re a real big family. That’s just the only difference. But like I said, my son will play for any team on the fact that his goal was to make it to the NBA. So it doesn’t matter what team he plays for.” 

In a recent USA Today feature story, the man who coaches LaVar Ball’s kids at Chino Hills High School, Stephan Gilling, opened up about Daddy Ball’s overbearing personality and tendency to overrule him at every turn. But in the NBA, Ball says that wouldn’t be a problem. 

“You know what you’re getting from my boys when you get them. Anything before that, in high school, you don’t know what you’re getting,” he said. “That’s why I have to mold them into these players. Everybody thought I went to practices and all that stuff with Steve Alford [at UCLA]. No, I never went to one practice. I’m not going to be up there telling [the coach], wherever [Lonzo] goes, ‘Hey man, you need to play my son like this.’ No, Lonzo’s turned into a man. That’s his job.” 

Though LaVar Ball continued to build up Lonzo during the interview –– he stuck by his claim that his eldest son could beat Stephen Curry in a game of one-on-one –– he said he doesn’t think his brash demeanor hurts his kids. In fact, he says he thinks it helps them become better players. 

“If you’re in the NBA, shouldn’t everyone want to dunk on you? Who cares?,” he asked. “If you want to be the best, I don’t want my son going into a situation where [everyone] says, ‘You know what? You’re a great guy, man. We’re not even going to play that hard on you. We want to ease you in nice and gentle to the NBA. We’re not coming after you.’ Man, that’s a bunch of hogwash. I want them all coming after my boy, because that’s how you get to be the greatest.”

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Read More: Boston Celtics,
Celtics come up short down the stretch in loss to Bucks 03.29.17 at 11:00 pm ET
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Mar 29, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Tony Snell (21) and guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) celebrate after Brogdon hit a shot with 3.9 seconds left in the second half of the Milwaukee Bucks 103-100 win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Brogdon scored six of Milwaukee’s final eight points in the fourth quarter (Winslow Townson/USA Today)

After erasing a 14-point deficit, the Celtics couldn’t put a lid on Milwaukee’s inside scoring and came up short in the final minute of regulation. 

Celtics made two consecutive defensive stops in the final minute — one by Al Horford on All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the other was a 24-second violation — and Isaiah Thomas’ layup pulled the Celtics to within one point (101-100). Just when you thought the Celtics had one more stop left in them, Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon hit a 16-foot jumper as the shot clock expired that gave the Bucks a three-point lead with three ticks left. 

In the final play of the night, Boston’s inbound pass to Thomas was deflected and ended up in the hands of Marcus Smart, who double-pumped a desperation 3-pointer that was nowhere near the rim as time expired. The Bucks defeated the Celtics, 103-100 and are now tied with the Hawks for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics are now in a virtual tie with the Cavaliers for the top spot. Bucks snapped a four-game winning streak. 

The C’s had a hard time trying to contain Antetokounmpo as he cruised to 22 points on 8-of-17 shots. He led four Bucks in double figures, getting help from Khris Middleton (19 points), Brogdon (16 points) and Greg Monroe (16 points). 

Thomas dropped a game-high 32 points, Jae Crowder scored 13 points, Avery Bradley notched a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Horford chipped in 11 points. 

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Read More: Celtics, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon,
Celtics pregame: Stevens on facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, ‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him’ 03.29.17 at 7:27 pm ET
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Mar 28, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts to a foul call in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. The Bucks defeated the Hornets 118-108. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Russell Westbrook and James Harden as one of only three players in the league averaging at least 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists this season (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today)

The Celtics will undoubtedly have their hands full on Wednesday as they gear up to face one of the hottest teams in the league.

Fresh off their 118-108 win at Charlotte, the Bucks will look to make it two in a row against the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t say enough about Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who is probably the biggest reason why Milwaukee has gone from a lottery team to the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.

“He does some things,” Stevens said. “That’s the best way to say it. He keeps adding to it. Him in transition is like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him.”

The Greek Freak enters Wednesday’s game averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the only other players averaging 23-plus points, 8-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists.

“As he’s become more skilled,” Stevens said. “He continues to put you in a worst bind. He’s tough; he’s good.” 

Milwaukee’s supporting cast has also been a key to their success. The return of Khris Middleton (left hamstring) has definitely helped throughout their recent stretch, rookie Malcom Brogdon (10.2 points) has emerged as a reliable outside threat and Greg Monroe is embracing his newfound 6th man role — averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench.

Middleton has been on fire this month, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, including 40.9 percent from behind the arc.

“Middleton spaces the floor, he can run off screens and score,” Stevens said. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. He’s gotten better, I think, as time’s gone on in pick-and-roll and with the ball. And then he’s a knockdown shooter.”

The Bucks (38-36) have won 12 of their last 15 games. In what could be a possible first-round matchup for the Celtics, Boston will get another crack at beating Milwaukee in their final game of the regular season on April 12.

Read More: Brad Stevens, Giannis Antetokounmpo,
Celtics are top seed in Eastern Conference, but does it really mean anything? 03.28.17 at 9:18 am ET
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Jaylen Brown's play of late has helped the Celtics gain the Eastern Conference's top spot. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

Jaylen Brown’s play of late has helped the Celtics gain the Eastern Conference’s top spot. (John Geliebter/USA Today Sports)

For Celtics fans, this feels good.

It’s almost April, and their team own the top seed in the Eastern Conference, overtaking the Cavaliers thanks to Cleveland’s blowout loss to San Antonio Monday night. It’s only 1/2 game lead, but considering how long the Celts have been chasing LeBron James and Co., it seems like something.

And if it makes you feel any better, the Web site fivethiryeight.com suggests the Celtics have a 67 percent chance at earning the conference’s No. 1 seed, compared to Cleveland’s 31 percent. It also puts the Celtics at seven percent to win the NBA title, only behind Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.

But other than staking claim to the top of the standings for the time being, should we really care about the standings flip-flop?

The Cavaliers are banged up, with James serving as their latest casualty thanks to an elbow in the neck. Iman Shumpert didn’t play Monday, and Kyle Korver will miss two more games with a sore foot. With nine games to play, you might very well see Cavs coach Tyronn Lue scaling back minutes in his teams last nine games (one of which is against the Celtics, on April 5), prioritizing a semi-healthy playoff run.

After the Cavaliers’ loss, James was quoted as saying, “It matters more that we’re playing better basketball than where we’re at. If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That’s what it comes down to.”

And, as painful as it is to admit, he’s right.

The Celtics are the team playing well and feeling good about themselves. Not only have they taken the top seed, but Brad Stevens team has won four in a row and eight of its last 10. It’s been a month where the C’s only loss to an Eastern Conference team came in a slip-up against the lowly Sixers, with the other three defeats coming at the hands of Western Conference foes.

The next three games for the Celtics come against two teams with sub-.500 records (Orlando, New York), and one vs. a club (Milwaukee) just one game over .500. Those contests lead into the showdown with the Cavaliers at TD Garden.

After the Cleveland tilt, the Celtics play four more, traveling to Atlanta and Charlotte before closing out the regular season at home with games against Brooklyn and Milwaukee. (The Nets, by the way, are five games ahead in their race for worst record in the NBA, which is obviously good news for the owner of their first-round pick, the Celtics.)

Right now, if the Celtics were to claim the No. 1 seed their opponent would be Miami, who is just 1/2 game up on Chicago for the final playoff spot in the East. As for who the No. 2 seed might play, the group of Atlanta, Milwaukee and Indiana are all tied.

Does it matter if Celtics get the top seed in the Eastern Conference?

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