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Celtics Drop Top West Squad, Shave Bulls East Lead

SAN ANTONIO — Rajon Rondo had 22 points and 14 assists, Paul Pierce scored 21 and the Boston Celtics stopped slipping further from first in the Eastern Conference, beating the slumping San Antonio Spurs 107-97 on Thursday night.

Kevin Garnett added 20 points and the Celtics, winning for just the second time in five games, moved within two games of Chicago for the No. 1 playoff seed in the East.

The Spurs remained stuck in an untimely tailspin, losing their fifth straight. The NBA’s winningest team is in danger of falling out of first place after comfortably being No. 1 in the West all season.

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points and Tim Duncan, playing for the first time in five games after spraining his ankle last week, had 20 points and 13 rebounds.

The Celtics celebrated the return of their own big man: center Jermaine O’Neal. The 14-year veteran played for the first time since January after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He scored 5 points in 11 minutes and hit his only two shots.

“We need him back,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers before the game, alluding to his depleted frontcourt that is still without Shaquille O’Neal. “And we need the minutes.”

Pierce also had 11 rebounds and Glen Davis scored 16 points as Boston had four players in double figures.

The Celtics broke open a tie game at halftime behind a 12-0 run in the third quarter. The Spurs never got closer than six after that.

The Celtics arrived in San Antonio after losing to Indiana, Charlotte and Memphis in three of their last four games. Two weeks ago, Boston (52-22) was tied for first place in the East.

Miami has also crawled back into contention for first, sitting a half-game behind Boston, but a big win against the toughest opponent they’ve seen in weeks kept the Celtics ahead of the Heat.

Then again, the Spurs aren’t looking so tough lately.

San Antonio (57-18) didn’t panic after losing four games with Duncan sidelined. But not even its starting five back and healthy could help the Spurs stop their season-worst skid.

The Spurs had nine losses at the All-Star break. They’ve dropped more than half that number of games in the past week alone.

“It happens to everybody. And this is about the worst time it could happen, at the end of the year,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before tipoff. “If it has to happen, you want it to happen 30 games in so you can get back and recover. So we got to step on it.”

They better.

San Antonio’s woes have renewed hopes the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas have of taking the No. 1 seed. The Lakers were 3 games back and hosted the Mavericks — who were 3 1/2 games behind the Spurs — later Thursday night.

Manu Ginobili, who sat out Monday’s loss against Portland with a left quad contusion, had nine points on just 4-of-13 shooting. Richard Jefferson added 14 points.

Game notes
Boston swept the season series 2-0 and will be the only team the Spurs didn’t beat this season. … Spurs F Antonio McDyess tweaked his left ankle in the second half but was cleared to return.

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