Stage is set for Celtics, Clippers

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Stage is set for Celtics, Clippers

As you read this, Im on a flight out west to witness the most significant game in CelticsClippers history. And while that might sound like hyperbole, and might also say more about this "rivalry" than it does the actual, long-term significance of tonights game, the original statement is absolutely true. Tonight is the night.

Theres never been more on the line between these two teams.

For the Clippers, its a 14-game winning streak the longest in franchise history, and the longest the NBA has seen since the Celtics ripped off 19 straight in the fallwinter of 2008. For the Cs, its momentum. A chance to build on their Christmas victory and make a statement against the undisputed hottest team in the league; a bona fide contender in the stacked Western Conference.

Of course, the Celtics are no strangers to big games in LA. Since the Staples Center opened its doors in 1999, some of Boston's most significant victories

and crushing defeats have unfolded on the same floor that they'll grace tonight. So many times before this, they've arrived in LA for an enormous contest, and gone through the same song and dance that they will today. But this time, once they arrive at the arena, everything will be different. The colors, the celebrities, the history, the rivalry. It will be simultaneously familiar and altogether foreign. It's prime time. TNT. EVERYTHING TO PROVE IN LA.

Just against the Clippers.

And as weird as that feels, what are you going to do? This is what happens. Time goes on. Things change. We now live in an NBA world where the Clippers and Knicks are atop the standings in their respective conferences. Where the Grizzlies and Warriors are in contention out West, the Nets are doing the same in the East, and the Timberwolves are an up-and-coming threat. While the Clips were the one franchise that you might expect to never experience this kind of prolonged resurgence, every dog has his day. Especially when that dog is fortunate enough to land a superstar with the No. 1 pick, trade for the best point guard in the league, steal a potential franchise center in the second round and use that foundation to install a winning culture and persuade an unbelievable supporting cast to come join the fun.

Truth be told, for all the talk this summer about how the Celtics might be the deepest team in the NBA, through two months it's the Clippers who can justifiably make that claim. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler and (ahem!) Willie Green give them a starting five that can hang with anyone, and one that's complimented by a bench that's led by Jamal Crawford (the former Sixth Man of the Year, who's averaging 16.5 points a night and likely headed to his first All-Star game), Eric Bledsoe (a strong and quick, instant energy PG, who will be a starter in this league before long), Matt Barnes (the quintessential bench guy on a great NBA team) and Lamar Odom (who showed up for camp looking like a manatee, but who is getting in shape and finally earning his keep).

Make no mistake. These guys are good. Real good. As a result, while I somewhat jokingly refer to tonight as the most important game in ClippersCeltics history, the Cs are the team with much more on the line. Even though it's early, the Clippers have already proved their worth this season, with two wins over the Spurs, as well as victories against Miami, Memphis, Atlanta and on the road against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Bostons Christmas Day win over Brooklyn was only their second real significant win of the year and came against a Nets team in their biggest slump of the season. Afterwards, Doc Rivers told reporters that the Celtics are close to becoming a good team again and while, in a perfect world, they'd have both Avery Bradley and Chris Wilcox in the the line-up, tonight offers Boston an immediate chance to back up their coach's encouraging words.

In an arena with which they're all too familiar, against an opponent that's riding high after so many years in the gutter.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Ainge: Tatum was always the Celtics' top choice

Ainge: Tatum was always the Celtics' top choice

BOSTON --  For the past couple of years, Jayson Tatum has been a big-time talent.
 
As a high schooler, he was among the nation’s best. In his lone season at Duke, the 29-year-old established himself as one of college basketball’s top players.
 
And just like that, he’s off to the latest and greatest basketball challenge of them all -- the NBA, after the Boston Celtics selected him with the third overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
 
The Celtics had the top overall pick, but traded it to Philadelphia for the No. 3 selection and a future first-round pick.
 
Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, made it clear that had they not struck a deal to move down a couple spots, they would have selected Tatum with the number one overall pick.

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“It was a great compliment,” Tatum said via conference call after the draft. “I’m excited Danny Ainge thinks that highly of me.”
 
Said Ainge: “We like his size, length, shooting, intelligence, character. There’s a lot to like about Jayson. He’s going to be a terrific player.”
 
Coach Brad Stevens echoed similar sentiments.
 
“He’s a really skilled player, really talented scorer,” Stevens said. “Great kid, great work ethic. We’re excited to have him aboard.”
 
And Tatum comes in having been told lots of positives about Brad Stevens from his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
 
“He had nothing but great things to say about [Stevens],” Tatum said. “I got that impression when I met him for the first time.”
 
During his visit with the Celtics, Tatum said he watched film of Boston’s offense with Stevens in addition to some film of when he played at Duke.
 
Tatum understands there will be a learning curve of sorts when it comes into the NBA.
 
But his growth must also come about physically, too.
 
He arrived at Duke weighing less than 200 pounds, but the 6-foot-8 wing player has gained about 10 pounds since then.
 
Aware that he needs to add additional weight, Tatum isn’t overly concerned about that right now.
 
“I’m just 19,” he said. “So I’m pretty sure my body’s going to continue to fill out and see where I get; a comfortable playing weight.”
 
He has identified three areas of his game that need to be strengthened at the next level: Consistency on defense, getting stronger and consistency shooting the ball.
 
And as a Celtic, Tatum has quickly picked up on one of the seldom-talked about but vital aspects of being a Celtic: A disdain for the Los Angeles Lakers.
 
That might be a little tricky at first for Tatum, who grew up a Kobe Bryant fan.
 
“It makes it easier that Kobe doesn’t play anymore,” Tatum said. “Kobe was always my favorite player. I guess I just rooted for them because he was on there.

"But I’m a Celtics fan now.”

Bulls trade Butler to Timberwolves in blockbuster draft-night deal

Bulls trade Butler to Timberwolves in blockbuster draft-night deal

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ever since Tom Thibodeau took over in Minnesota last summer, a reunion with Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler seemed destined to happen.

For the coach that desperately wanted a defensive-minded veteran to set the tone for a talented young roster, and for the player who only truly realized what he had in that hard-driving leader after he was gone.

"It's been something that over a prolonged period of time there have been different moments where he's had to consider it and think about it," Butler's agent, Bernie Lee, told The Associated Press. "In some ways it feels like it was spoken into reality."

In the blockbuster move of draft night, the Bulls traded Butler and the 16th overall pick Thursday night to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick as the Wolves try to finally put an end to a 13-year playoff drought.

The trade brings together Butler and Wolves coach and president Thibodeau, who coached the Bulls for five seasons before being fired in 2015. Thibodeau helped Butler become an All-NBA performer and earn a $95 million contract and Butler helped Thibodeau instill the brass-knuckle mentality into those Bulls teams.

"The longer you are with somebody, the more deposits you have with each other, the trust is there," Thibodeau said. "You're not afraid to tell them the truth. So I think I know him well. I know the things that are important to him. I know he wants to win. And he wants to win big."

Now they're together again, trying to lead a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2004.

"It's one of those moments where the excitement of tonight has to carry forward to the work that has to come," Lee said. "And if it does, it will really be a beautiful thing to see."

The Wolves paid a big price: Besides surrendering the lottery pick, they gave up a rising star in LaVine, who is coming off of a torn ACL and Dunn, last year's No. 5 overall pick. They were among the youngest teams in the league last season, cast as a team that could be a force once all of their pups grew up.

After a disappointing first season overseeing the operation, Thibodeau grabbed a fully grown pit bull to toughen the team up.

Butler played for Thibodeau for four seasons in Chicago, developing from an unheralded, late-first round draft pick into a perennial All-Star. The two strong-willed workaholics clashed on occasion during their time together and Butler said during the Olympics in Rio last summer that it was "love-hate" relationship.

But he also acknowledged that his appreciation for Thibodeau's hard-driving style increased as time went on, especially when the Bulls struggled in their first season under the more player-friendly Fred Hoiberg.

"They've come by their relationship honestly," Lee said. "They worked through a period to where they really came to learn what the other is about. ... They have a basis to work from, but things have changed and they've changed and adapted. They will take the starting point that they have, but they have to build on it."

The Wolves drafted Arizona sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen for the Bulls at No. 7 and the Bulls took Creighton forward Justin Patton at No. 16 for the Wolves. Patton is a 6-foot-11 forward who was the Big East freshman of the year after averaging 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds last season.

When Thibodeau was hired as team president and coach last summer, he quickly set his sights on bringing Butler to Minnesota. The two sides engaged on serious discussions on draft night last year, but couldn't close it.

LaVine was having a breakout third season in the league when he tore the ACL in his left knee in February. His rehabilitation has gone well, but the injury certainly complicated the Wolves' re-engaging Chicago on Butler. Adding to the difficulty was Dunn's underwhelming first year in Minnesota, which diminished his trade value.

With all that in play, the Wolves were forced to also offer up the No. 7 pick this season to push the deal over the top. But they did receive Chicago's first-round pick in return. The move, and the package they assembled to make it, signal an organization that is desperate to start winning.

Butler averaged career highs in points (23.9), rebounds (6.2) and assists (5.5) in his sixth season. He is also one of the league's top defenders, an absolute necessity for a young team that finished 26th in the league in defensive efficiency last season. He will turn 28 in September, right in the middle of his prime for a team in need of veteran leadership.

"The most important thing to me are the things he does every day, the way he practices, the things that he does in meetings, the way he prepares before a game, the things that he does for recovery," Thibodeau said. "He'll show our players a lot of the things that he's learned along the way."

The move also represents the first significant steps toward an overhaul for the Bulls. Despite a spirited effort, the Bulls were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Wade opted in for the final year of his contract, but that isn't stopping Chicago from pivoting to a new, younger nucleus that includes LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen and Denzel Valentine.

Now that Butler is gone, the 35-year-old Wade could become a buyout candidate as the Bulls go into rebuilding mode.