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Michael Taylor 22nd Jan 2009 - 2:23

NBA mid-term report: don't rule out the champs

The Boston Celtics have found defending their NBA Championship harder than expected but don't worry New England fans, their grip on the cup should not be loosening just yet.

Doc Rivers' Celtics have been suffering their worst run since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were added to the roster back in summer '07 and, following shock losses to the New York Knicks, Charlotte Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers, their odds to gain a second successive Championship have drifted out to 5/2.

But never fear...this Boston team is too good not to challenge, just ask the Phoenix Suns after they marched into TD Banknorth Garden with high hopes, only to be dismissed before the first half was over.

And it wasn't just Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen that silenced Shaq and Nash, there was also help in plentyful supply from Rajon Rondo - who is rapidly becoming the fourth mega-star for the Celts.

It confirmed what many people thought, the Celtics are able to raise their game to a level that nobody can match! They're even rumoured to be bringing in Stephon Marbury to further strengthen their claim.

True, they have stronger opposition in the East this year with the Cleveland Cavaliers (9/2 outright) finally managing to put a team together that is worthy of LeBron James, and Dwight Howard leading the Orlando Magic (10/1 outright) to new heights, but come play-off time it seems tough to imagine anybody surpassing Boston's experienced stars.

The Detroit Pistons (14/1 outright) finally seem to have hit breaking point, making the East a three-horse race, while the Atlanta Hawks (50/1 outright) are showing promise but Horford, Gardner et al. may be more realistic contenders next year.

In the West there is just one team! The LA Lakers look unstoppable and, barring any miracles, Kobe Bryant can look forward to making amends for last year's NBA Championship Finals disappointment.

The Lakers are 9/4 favourites to win it all but it is hard to see how they've done enough to gain revenge on the Celtics if there is a repeat of last year's finals.

Elsewhere in the West, the New Orleans Hornets are good value at 14/1, but they haven't clicked like they did last year.

Chris Paul is once again proving his brilliance from the point, and put in the best individual performance of the season last week, falling short of a quadruple double by just three steals, but, like Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints, he is being asked to do too much in The Big Easy.

The San Antonio Spurs have done better than expected as Tim Duncan keeps defying his age and talk that the San Antonio dynasty days are at an end but, in reality, they are over and when the play-offs arrive this will become very transparant.

As for the rest of the West, it is virtually impossible to see anyone else in the mix, making an outside bet look an untempting proposition.

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