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Testing, testing. Testing, testing

The top of the Western Conference is so competitive, so zany, that it's become a nine-horse race played out in slow motion. Each day the rides shift slightly as they round the turn. And there are still five exhausting weeks to come.

As if the competition wasn't appealing enough, here comes the league's best team to add another dimension to the most bloodthirsty playoff chase in years. Starting Monday night in San Antonio, the Celtics will visit the Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks and Hornets over an intensive trip of six days.

"We're going to be thrown into the playoff fray with the West, because they're in it and we're going to have to join it,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Every night we're going to have a tough, physical night, and we're going to have to have great mental focus.''

The Celtics have dictated the terms of their season by coming out of the November gate at full speed and maintaining a firm conference lead all season. Because they've faced relatively little pressure from the other contenders in the East, some mild doubts have been raised about their playoff readiness. Those doubts don't hold up when you consider that Boston ranks first in the main defensive categories -- points allowed (90.3), field-goal percentage (41.7) and even three-point percentage (31.4).

Their four opponents this week are a combined 92 games over .500, and the early games will be especially dramatic. On Tuesday, Boston will be trying to end Houston's 22-game winning streak, but the Celtics will be on the tough end of a back-to-back after playing Monday at San Antonio. The Spurs are under pressure to stop a three-game losing streak that has dropped them from No. 1 to a tie for fifth in the crowded West.

Rivers must weigh the short-term needs of this trip against the goal of being healthy for the playoffs as he decides whether to play Ray Allen, who missed Saturday's win at Milwaukee with a heel injury. The Celtics have the NBA's best road mark at 23-8, and their league-leading 20-4 (.833) record against the West demonstrates how excited they become for these encounters with the superior conference. Boston captain Paul Pierce sounds like a boxing promoter as he looks ahead to the biggest week of his best season.

"It's going to be playoff-like,'' he said. "My favorite time of the year is right now to prepare us for what we're going to see in the playoffs when we go on the road. You're going to get big crowds, and don't expect any calls -- just go out there and get it done on the road. That's what playoff basketball is going to be and you're going to see it.''

The Celtics received an unfriendly warning when the Jazz visited them with a 110-92 drubbing Friday -- only the second double-digit loss suffered by Boston this season. The Jazz had been a horrid 15-21 on the road, but Deron Williams (32 points) made sure to avenge Utah's home loss to Boston in December.

"These are the games you circle on your calendar,'' said Carlos Boozer, who threw in 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Since the All-Star break the Celtics have gone 4-4 against the West, though several of those losses came as Kevin Garnett was working his way back into the lineup after a three-week absence.

"Garnett has great focus and that makes everybody else focus,'' Rivers said. "We play hard, we like each other, we share the ball. We're not a fancy team and I think that helps us. We just try to be a fundamentally sound basketball team every night, and when we're that we've got a chance to win the game. And when we're not that, we're probably going to lose that game.''

Rivers feels that the Celtics have stolen 10 wins that they deserved to lose, but unlike other contenders, they've yet to develop bad habits or look like they're coasting.

"That's the teams that have been together -- the Detroits of the world and all of those guys,'' Rivers said. "They've been in this chase so long, you can't blame them at times if they get bored. It gets exciting for our guys because we've been in this chase for four months. San Antonio's been in it for six years. And it's a big difference.''

The Spurs will be excited to receive their guests Monday. "It's the biggest road trip of the year, especially this part of the season, with teams all fighting for playoff position,'' Pierce said. "We're going to get everybody's best shot. But this team's showed a lot of heart, a lot of character this year, and I expect us to get the job done.''


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