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Tim Duncan (left), Tony Parker and the Spurs were
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By Steve DeShazo
THE NBA DOESN'T
Still, it's pretty clear which quartet of teams make up the NBA's elite this season: Cleveland, Orlando, Phoenix and the L.A. Lakers.
Only the Suns qualify as a mild surprise. This is a team that actively shopped its most marketable player, Amare Stoudamire, just before February's trade deadline in what seemed to be a concession that it would have to rebuild.
Instead, thanks to a vastly underrated bench and the remarkable staying power of Steve Nash (age 36) and Grant Hill (38), Phoenix looks entirely capable of winning its first NBA title.
Just as notable, though, is the fast-closing window of a couple of the league's premier franchises. Friday night's shockingly decisive home defeats probably signal the end of the title hopes for the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs as they are now constituted.
The aging Celtics seemed to have lots of gas left in their tank after outplaying the top-seeded Cavaliers twice in Cleveland and stealing home-court advantage. But Friday night's 124-95 rout could have been accompanied by "The Price is Right's" bankrupt ditty.
Paul Pierce shot 4-for-15. Ray Allen was 2-for-9. Neither had any success guarding LeBron James, who answered his critics with 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Among Boston's grizzled "Big Three," only Kevin Garnett (19 points on 8-for-11 shooting) was a factor--and the Celtics were still outscored by 20 points while he was on the floor.
When the Celtics added Allen (34) and Garnett (almost 34) with Pierce (32) in 2007, they acknowledged that their window of opportunity was 3-4 years. They won a title that first season, but the expiration date may have passed. Boston's stars are aging and injury-prone, and it's clear that point guard Rajon Rondo is now their best player.
Look for another major overhaul by team president Danny Ainge this summer. If there isn't, he's denying the obvious and delaying his team's rebuilding process.