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SAN ANTONIO – Way back before the season began, Doc Rivers scanned through the Boston Celtics' schedule for games of interest. One week in the middle of March quickly caught his attention. The Celtics would play in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas in succession.
The Texas triangle.
Or, as Rivers likes to call it these days, "Bermuda."
Never had a trek through the Lone Star State looked so daunting. Few teams, in recent years, have been asked to play all three Texas clubs on the same trip. No one has played them when each has been this good.
The Houston Rockets are riding a 22-game winning streak that ranks as the second-longest in NBA history. The Dallas Mavericks appear to have found a little rhythm with Jason Kidd as their new point guard. The San Antonio Spurs, despite recent struggles, are seeking their fourth championship in sixth years.
All are locked in the toughest Western Conference race ever. And when the Celtics finish with those three? They head over to neighboring Louisiana to visit the New Orleans Hornets, owners of the West's third-best record.
"I like being in this fray," Rivers said Monday morning. "I think it's because every team is in a desperate mode in the West. We're kind of in a strange way thrown into the Western Conference this week. The tough part is, can we match that intensity because we haven't been in that fray?"
The results from their first test point to an enthusiastic yes. On Monday evening, the Celtics dug themselves out of a 22-point first-half deficit – their largest of the season – rallied again from nine down with less than six minutes left and then held their breath as Robert Horry front-rimmed a 3-pointer just before the final buzzer. They also did all this with Ray Allen sidelined by a heel injury. With a bit of Irish luck, Boston's rousing 93-91 victory over the Spurs gave them their second consecutive St. Patrick's Day victory in San Antonio.
"For a team that hasn't gone through anything," Rivers said, "if you could script a game, this would be it."
Rivers views this trip as the perfect opportunity to sharpen his team's focus before the playoffs. There are too many nights to coast in the East, too many opponents who hope to collect pingpong balls rather than wins. Not in the West, where six games separate the top nine teams.
"That's amazing. I've never seen anything like this. I don't think any of us have. It's Tiger Woods."
Just ask the Spurs. After their schedule took them through the grinder the past week, they emerged looking like a 17-handicap weekend hacker. They carried an 11-game win streak and the West's best record into Denver on March 7 and have since lost six of seven. Monday's disheartening outcome gave the Spurs their first four-game losing streak since December 2003 and dropped them into a tie for sixth.
Nearly every game carries so much importance in the West that the conference race is quickly becoming a war of attrition. Each coach is faced with the same dilemma: Push your players hard every night in hopes of landing homecourt advantage and you run the risk of burning them out before the playoffs even start.
"It's a real decision-making process you almost have to do by the seat of your pants," Popovich said.
"The seedings are really meaningless. There is no eighth-seeded team and there is no first-seeded team, as far as the West is concerned."
Still searching for a consistent rotation, Popovich went back to his championship lineup Monday, moving Manu Ginobili and Kurt Thomas to the bench and starting Michael Finley and Fabricio Oberto in their place. Damon Stoudamire, who was previously receiving minutes as the backup point guard, didn't play at all.
The changes appeared to benefit the Spurs. Ginobili came off the bench burying 3-pointers and by the time the Celtics looked up, they were staring at a 19-point deficit in the first quarter.
"The lesson there," Rivers said, "is on the road you can't ease into a basketball game against an angry, great team."
The Celtics stirred themselves soon enough. Rajon Rondo, whom the Spurs had unsuccessfully tried to trade up and get in the 2006 draft, scored 20 points and created havoc in San Antonio's passing lanes with his long arms, sparking Boston's comeback. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett added 22 and 21 points, respectively.
What Popovich had done with Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas, Rivers is now doing with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, shoehorning the veteran newcomers into his rotation to get them acclimated as best as possible. Unlike Stoudamire, Cassell figures to be an on-court fixture. He scored 17 points and certified his big-shot credentials with the Celtics by drilling the go-ahead 3-pointer with 46.4 seconds left.
Said Kevin Garnett: "That's what he do."
The Spurs had one final chance to force overtime or win the game when Bruce Bowen intercepted Boston's inbounds pass with about four seconds left. Unaware the Spurs still had a timeout remaining, Bowen rifled the ball to Robert Horry, who hoisted a 3-pointer that made nearly everyone in Celtics green gasp. Everyone, that is, except Cassell, his old Rockets teammate.
"I've known that guy a long, long time and I know what he's capable of when his feet are set," Cassell said. "But his feet weren't set, so we got the benefit of the doubt tonight."
The Spurs trudged off the court, adding yet another loss to their total. None of their three stars – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Ginobili – bothered to stick around to speak with reporters. Horry faulted himself for not calling a timeout.
"I'm mad that we're up 22 and blew it," he said. "I know we're playing one of the best teams in the league, but there's no excuse."
Not out West, where someone is waiting to take your place in the standings. Each night presents a new challenge. The Celtics are learning that fast. Less than two hours after their victory they jetted to Houston. On Tuesday, the Rockets and their 22-game streak await.
"We be there tomorrow," Cassell said. "We're coming. The Big Green Machine is coming. …I don't predict wins and losses, but I'll predict one thing: We'll be there."