THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Gifted four looking out for No. 1

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / February 15, 2009
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PHOENIX - Celtics star Paul Pierce stared at a black box wrapped with a silver bow that was given to him by Cleveland star LeBron James during the All-Star media session Friday. Wearing a curious smile, Pierce slowly unwrapped the present. No, a jack-in-the-box didn't pop out, nor was there black smoke. Inside was a beautiful Steuben Glass pyramid with the names of each Eastern Conference All-Star engraved on it.

Pierce was touched by the unexpected gift, especially since the defending champion Celtics and James's Cavaliers are bitter rivals and the front-runners for the Eastern Conference title. So with the gift, Pierce and James are buddies now, right?

"We good. We good. We are all good friends when we come here," Pierce said. "But once we leave here, it's back on."

Said Mike Brown, coach of the Cavaliers and the East team, "Come Monday morning, it's going to be different."

While the Celtics and Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the East and the Lakers and Spurs are the marquee squads of the West, it will be interesting to see if things stay that way.

"Everybody is saying that, based on the record of the four teams and how we've played, that those teams are the best," Pierce said. "That's pretty much the top four teams record-wise.

"But you never know when teams start getting healthy like the New Orleans Hornets or somebody makes a big move. Phoenix's roster, they're one of the most talented teams in the league. You never know what can happen in the second half or the playoffs."

Said Spurs All-Star Tim Duncan, "Like everything else, you need a little bit of luck, a whole lot of health, you need the ball to bounce your way a little bit, and if all those things happen, I hope we're right in the mix."

The Eastern Conference race seemed like a three-team battle among Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando just weeks ago. But with the Magic losing guard Jameer Nelson - probably for the remainder of the season - with a shoulder injury, the expectations now are that Boston and Cleveland are the real East contenders.

"With us and Boston, we go out and try to play at a high level every night," James said. "If people want to put us into that class, we're going to take away from the fact of what we are trying to do every night and that's to try to win basketball games and try to sustain a great effort every time we go out."

Orlando (38-13) is actually only four games behind Boston (44-11) and two games behind Cleveland (40-11). The Magic have two healthy All-Stars in center Dwight Howard and forward Rashard Lewis and an All-Star-caliber forward in Hedo Turkoglu. Veteran point guards Anthony Johnson and newcomer Tyronn Lue have the tough task of filling Nelson's shoes.

Howard is confident the Magic are still a championship-caliber team.

"It's team basketball," Howard said. "It takes a whole team to win a championship. As a team we have to continue to grow and find other ways to score when one of our leading scorers is out."

Brown said the Magic "still have a quality, quality ball club. People have argued in the past that Turkoglu belongs here from time to time. You're talking about four potential All-Stars. Yes, Jameer's out. But you still have three guys."

The Lakers, despite the loss of center Andrew Bynum until at least April with a knee injury, have the NBA's best record (42-10) and are well ahead of the pack in the West. The Spurs (35-16) are 6 1/2 games behind, but their stellar trio of Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili is healthy and have won NBA titles together. San Antonio, the NBA's most successful team this decade, is still a team to be taken seriously by recently winning at Boston.

"They have the second-best record in the West and they've been very successful in the past decade," said Lakers All-Star Pau Gasol. "We respect them a lot. We never would make the mistake to overlook them because they're tough and they're going to fight us if we play each other."

Many expect the Lakers and Spurs to meet in the West finals for the second straight season. Injury-plagued New Orleans (30-20) was projected to be a West title contender, but sits in sixth place in the conference. Quietly, the Denver Nuggets have the West's third-best record at 36-17. And when asked if there was a team outside the Lakers that makes him nervous, Duncan mentioned Denver.

While the Nuggets have been aided by the arrival of All-Star Chauncey Billups, the franchise has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1994.

"We got a chance to be on that level with the Lakers and the Spurs," Billups said. "Those are probably the best two teams in the West right now and we're trying to creep into that elite group.

"That makes us feel good that they respect us, but at the end of the day, you have to go out and play."

Brown, who was an advance scout for the Nuggets when they upset top-seeded Seattle in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, isn't going to assume that the Cavaliers, Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs are givens to be in the conference finals.

"After being a part of [1994], anything, in my opinion, can happen," Brown said. "You have to come ready to play during the playoffs."

Said Gasol, "Injuries might occur. Change of momentum might occur. Lots of things might happen and a team might gain momentum during the last 20 games of the season and come to the playoffs in great shape and you'd have to consider them contenders. There is still a long way to go."

As of tomorrow, it's back to business for the NBA's elite. And for the weekend, the Celtics, Cavs, Lakers, and Spurs are putting their realistic championship dreams aside for some All-Star fun.

"This is great for me because you can get a sense and feel for some of these personalities," Brown said. "When you're competing against them for a win, it's different. You don't have an opportunity to really talk to anybody or get to know them in a life away from trying to win that ballgame. But here everyone lets their guard down to a certain degree and they're themselves more than anything else.

"Sitting in the Eastern Conference All-Star meeting, KG is funny. He is funny as heck. I heard him talk more in that meeting than 12-plus years we've been in the league together."

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