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A four-star stretch for Celtics

K. GARNETT 'Should be fun' K. GARNETT "Should be fun"
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / March 17, 2008

SAN ANTONIO - There will be no Southern hospitality for the Celtics this week.

Boston faces its toughest road challenge of the season over the next four games against Western Conference power teams that have at least 43 wins. The Celtics open the trip against reigning NBA champion San Antonio tonight and follow with games against Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans.

"These next four games are going to be playoff-style basketball games," forward Kevin Garnett said. "We have to be ready."

Measuring sticks have come and gone for the Celtics, who own the NBA's best record at 52-13.

Boston has clinched a playoff berth, won the Atlantic Division, and surpassed 50 wins, and is on pace to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Celtics also ran to a 16-0 record against the mighty Western Conference and are now 20-4.

Coach Doc Rivers said the trip is a measuring stick "for everyone else but us. We just look at it as another opportunity to get better. We like challenges. This is a good one."

Said Garnett, "It's on the schedule. We are aware of it. We'll come calling. We got some tough teams this week. I think everyone mentally, to themselves, is ready."

Considering the Celtics' longtime popularity, their success this season, and the fact they make only one trip to each Western Conference arena, tickets will be hard to find and a wild atmosphere should be expected each night.

In fact, a Spurs official said demand for tonight's sold-out game was similar to that of the NBA Finals. San Antonio (44-22) will be looking to get back to its winning ways after dropping three straight games. The Celtics defeated the Spurs, 98-90, Feb. 10 in Boston. "It's always good to play great teams," Spurs guard Tony Parker, whose team is 27-5 at home, told the Express-News in San Antonio. "To be honest with you, I like that game. It's going to be a playoff atmosphere. Lots of intensity. It's going to be good."

Said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, "Always, the Spurs are a measuring stick for the league. They've set the standard of what everyone wants to do and what they've accomplished. It's a great challenge for us, especially since they play well at home. It will be good for us."

The Celtics go to Houston tomorrow night to play a Rockets team that has a 22-game winning streak after dispatching the Lakers, 104-92, yesterday. Boston faces Jason Kidd and the Mavericks Thursday and finishes the trip Saturday night against MVP candidate Chris Paul and the surprising Hornets. All of Boston's games this week are critical for the Western teams in their playoff fights.

"It's a big challenge for us," Pierce said. "We have a good flow going. We've won the last five on the road and the last 10 out of 11 [overall]. This is the time of the year where you want to get hot and these are the types of games you want to play at this time of the year because they prepare you for the playoffs."

"We've had playoff-atmosphere games all year," said Garnett. "These games coming up are no different from that. It should be fun."

Guard Ray Allen missed Saturday night's 99-77 win at Milwaukee with a left heel injury. While Allen could return tonight, Rivers often is cautious regarding injuries. "We want to go into the playoffs 100 percent healthy," he said . . . The Celtics had yesterday off.

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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