So far, the Celtics know how the West is won.
They defeated the Dallas Mavericks, 96-90, last night at a sold-out TD Banknorth Garden. With Celtics legend Bill Russell sitting courtside, Boston improved to 13-0 against the Western Conference this season.
While the Celtics have yet to play the reigning champion Spurs and the hot Suns and Hornets, defeating the Mavericks legitimized Boston's unblemished West record.
"I didn't know that," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers of his team being 13-0 against the West. "It's nice. It caught me off guard. But we still have a West Coast trip coming up [after] the All-Star break, so you know I'm not going to say a word about it. The West is better than the East."
Boston is now an NBA-best 36-8, and 20-4 at home, after going 10-5 in January.
Kevin Garnett missed his third straight game with an abdominal strain. Boston, however, is 2-1 without Garnett, filling his mammoth sneakers with the likes of Leon Powe (10 points, 4 rebounds) and James Posey (13 points, 3 rebounds).
"When you don't have a Garnett and you win against Dallas, it's good," Rivers said. "Dallas is a team that we are still trying to catch in our minds. They've been there."
Rivers said he wouldn't return Garnett to the lineup until he was 100 percent and that there was no timetable for his return. Rivers, however, did say that Garnett seemed to be improving.
Garnett hasn't spoken publicly in a week. Director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, however, expressed optimism that Garnett will be back soon.
"I'm not worried long term," Ainge said. "It's day to day. I'm hoping he can play next week."
Allen returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday's game at Miami with flu-like symptoms. He received intravenous fluids at a Miami hospital and slept so much that day that he remembers little of it.
"I just kept throwing up," Allen said. "It was probably the most I had thrown up in my life."
To make matters worse, he returned to action just after learning he didn't get selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, while teammates Garnett and Paul Pierce made it.
The teams went into halftime knotted at 44. Allen scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting before the break. Dallas forward Josh Howard, who was snubbed for the Western Conference All-Star team, scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half.
"I was trying to make plays," Allen said. "I've spent a lot of time being a playmaker so I wanted to make sure I came out and was aggressive."
Boston held a 71-70 lead through three. Pierce scored 13 points in the third quarter, when Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki scored 17 of his game-high 31 points.
Howard's lay-in tied the game at 88 with 3:21 left. Two free throws by Pierce gave Boston a 90-88 lead with 3:02 remaining, before Nowitzki hit two free throws with 58.4 seconds left to tie the game at 90.
After a missed jumper by Pierce, the 6-foot-1-inch, 171-pound Rondo snuck behind the 7-foot, 245-pound Nowitzki and took the ball out of his hands. Without hesitation, Rondo (14 points, season-high 12 rebounds) scored on a reserve lay-in to give Boston a 92-90 lead with 42.5 seconds left.
"[Rondo] came in from behind on us and I guess we just lost vision of him, and it was a huge play for him," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said.
Said Rivers: "Over the last three games, I think this is the best stretch of [Rondo's] career."
After Dallas guard Jason Terry missed a jumper in the lane, Posey retrieved the rebound with 10.9 seconds left. After being fouled, Posey sealed the win with two free throws with 10 seconds left.
"It's a little surprising," said Pierce of Boston's success against the West. "But, hey, we are focusing on what we have to do night in and night out. Anything is possible. I think the Western Conference favors the kind of style we like to play, anyway. They like to get up and down [the floor] a little more. They are more offensive-oriented than, I think, the Eastern Conference. That suits our style just fine."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org