Boston (51-22) at San Antonio (57-17)

By KATE HEDLIN, STATS Writer Wednesday, Mar 30, 2011 Tipoff: 8:00 pm EDT Thu Mar 31, 2011

A once comfortable lead atop the Western Conference has shrunk dramatically in the past 10 days for the injury-riddled San Antonio Spurs.

The Boston Celtics’ lead in the East is long gone and they’re not playing as if they can get it back.

One of these stumbling title contenders will get a much-needed boost Thursday night, when the Spurs looks to avoid their worst losing streak in nearly 14 years and a fifth straight home loss to the Celtics.

San Antonio (57-17) still leads the West but is struggling to hold off the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas. The Spurs had a seven-game lead over Los Angeles on March 21, but that margin has been cut in half because they’ve lost a season-high four in a row.

Tim Duncan(notes) has missed all four of the losses with a sprained ankle and the Spurs’ injury woes worsened earlier this week. They were without Tony Parker(notes) (left knee contusion), Manu Ginobili(notes) (bruised thigh) and Antonio McDyess(notes) (back) in a 100-92 loss to Portland on Monday.

“It’s life. You have to deal with it and figure out how to get better,” said George Hill(notes), who had a team-high 27 points. “No one’s hanging their head or thinking we’re not as good as we’ve been all year.”

Parker and McDyess are expected to play against the Celtics, and Ginobili and Duncan could also return if they’re cleared before the game.

The Spurs are at risk of losing five consecutive games for the first time since dropping their final six of the 1996-97 season.

Monday marked only their fourth loss in 37 home games this season, but the Celtics (51-22) have won their last four visits to San Antonio. The only other team not to have lost at least once in its last two regular-season games there is Utah.

When the Spurs lost 105-103 in Boston on Jan. 5, the teams had the two best records in the NBA. While San Antonio has maintained the league’s top record despite its struggles, Boston has only the fifth-best mark and has fallen behind Chicago for the East lead.

The Celtics have lost three of four and seven of 12, including a 107-100 defeat at Indiana on Monday. Boston gave up 42 points in the paint and failed to outrebound the opposition for a fourth consecutive game as it continues to play without injured big men Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and Jermaine O’Neal(notes).

Rajon Rondo(notes) did play after missing Sunday’s game against Minnesota with a jammed finger on his right hand, finishing with 22 points and eight assists. He had averaged 5.8 points on 29.2 percent shooting in his previous eight games.

With depth a concern for Boston, fatigue could be an issue. They were outscored 26-15 in the fourth quarter Monday and by an average of 26.3 to 15.7 in their last three losses.

“We became a great team because we were known to do it for 48 minutes,” Kevin Garnett(notes) said. “We seem to be missing that right now.”

Garnett did not play against the Spurs in January, but Boston shot 61.3 percent. Ray Allen(notes) scored 31 points while Rondo had 22 assists, 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Celtics have won six of the last eight meetings.

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Thursday, Mar 31