Team to beat

The Baltimore Sun

For sport fans outside of New England who have had a bellyful of the Red Sox and Patriots, there's some bad news: The Celtics are pretty good, too.

Of course, they have been chugging along with the NBA's best record all season, so that's not exactly a news flash. But Boston's raid through Texas this week unequivocally served notice that the Celts are the clear favorite to win the NBA championship.

When Boston journeyed into the so-called Texas Triangle, it was San Antonio, Houston and Dallas - three teams that have combined to win two-thirds of their games - who disappeared.

Starting in San Antonio on St. Patrick's Day, the Celtics came back from a 22-point hole to beat the Spurs, 93-91. Remember it was the Spurs who swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the league title last year.

In Houston, with the Rockets riding the second-longest winning streak in league history - 22 in a row - Boston won by 20 points.

And Thursday, in Dallas, with the game up for grabs in the last minute, it was the Celts, not the Mavericks on their own court, who stayed cool and prevailed.

In the 94-90 win over Dallas, Boston got balanced scoring (Paul Pierce 22, Ray Allen 21 and Kevin Garnett 20). Recently-acquired Sam Cassell gave them 26 minutes, James Posey added a quality 21 minutes, and they got 85 minutes total from the bench.

Even though the Celts started fast and have maintained a gaudy winning percentage, it was easy to rationalize over the past few months that they played in a weak Eastern Conference division. Their nearest challengers in the Atlantic were 20 games in the Celtics' rearview mirror heading into this weekend.

But what Boston has proven lately (and has another chance to do so tonight against the New Orleans Hornets) is that it can consistently win against quality teams. More to the Celtics' credit, they did it against teams that needed the W's more than they did.

Beyond that, the Celts showed they can absorb an off night or two or three from one of their stars and still be just fine. And this team's hallmark, sturdy balance, indicates that it has the ideal engineering for the long grind of the NBA playoffs.

Much is said and written about the lopsided nature of the NBA with the Western Conference having so many more good teams than the East; the ninth-best team in the West (the Denver Nuggets) has a better record than the fourth-best team in the East (Cleveland). But at this point, not one of them seems good enough to take on the Celtics.

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