The Boston Celtics are no longer realistically pursuing the best record in NBA history, but despite their relative struggles recently, they’ve maintained another feat that could be just as impressive.
The Celtics will have their unbeaten record against Western Conference opponents tested on Sunday when they host the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won four straight on their nine-game road trip and nine in a row in Boston.
The West has been considered the superior conference for nearly a decade, but the Celtics (38-9) have gone 15-0 against Western Conference opponents this season.
They haven’t yet played Phoenix, New Orleans or the Spurs (32-16), but they’ve beaten the Los Angeles Lakers twice, blown out Denver by 26 points and won at Utah.
The Celtics are coming off two straight wins against West teams, including Friday’s 88-86 victory at Minnesota. Former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett missed his sixth straight game with an abdominal strain, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers said there’s a “99.9 percent” chance Garnett will miss Sunday’s game.
Playing against a Spurs front line that features two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan, the Celtics might also be missing starting center Kendrick Perkins, who left Friday’s game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.
But Boston still has the NBA’s best record, and has shown signs of breaking out of its midseason swoon by winning four of the last five. Against the Timberwolves, the Celtics were outrebounded 44-36, but found a way to win when Leon Powe made a putback at the buzzer.
“Any time we win without Kevin on the road, it’s a big win for us,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”
Powe had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds off the bench against Minnesota, and could make his first start of the season Sunday if Perkins can’t play.
The Celtics and Spurs are two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, both ranking in the top three in points allowed per game. Boston is first, giving up 89.0, while San Antonio ranks third (91.2).
The Spurs have been especially stingy on their current trip, allowing just 87.5 points in six games. They’ve won their last four, including 99-93 in overtime at New York on Friday.
San Antonio trailed the Knicks by 16 at halftime, but outscored New York 27-14 in the third quarter, and used a set play to spring Michael Finley for a wide-open 3-pointer in the final second to send the game to overtime.
“I think experience helped us on that particular play,” Finley said.
The Spurs didn’t allow a field goal in the extra session, giving them their longest winning streak since a five-game run from Nov. 28-Dec. 7.
Duncan had 21 points and 14 rebounds and Manu Ginobili had 20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds Friday as the Spurs played their fifth straight game without point guard Tony Parker, who is out with an ankle injury.
Newly acquired point guard Damon Stoudamire, whom the Celtics were rumored to have interest in, has started the last three games, but it’s Ginobili who has stepped up in Parker’s absence, averaging 7.0 assists in the last five.
Pierce had 30 points as the Celtics won 91-85 at San Antonio last March 17, ending Boston’s 18-game losing streak against the Spurs. But San Antonio has still won nine in a row at the TD Banknorth Garden dating to the 1996-97 season - when Duncan was still at Wake Forest.