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76ers 89, Celtics 86

Celtics again caught short at the finish

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA — They were 6 1/2 minutes of emptiness.

The Sixers had a stranglehold on momentum for most of last night, but when Ray Allen drilled a 3-pointer that made it 81-79 (his only trey of the game), it seemed as if the Celtics were getting a grip.

Then, their offense froze over.

Allen had a midrange jumper swatted away.

Nenad Krstic had one smacked back at him by Elton Brand.

Kevin Garnett missed from 4 feet.

Paul Pierce didn’t attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter.

Rajon Rondo simplified the Celtics’ 89-86 loss.

“Nothing happened,’’ Rondo said. “That was the problem. We didn’t get some calls. We took some bad shots. We turned the ball over.’’

It was mutually ugly down the stretch. The Celtics shot 6 of 20 in the fourth quarter. The Sixers shot 6 of 22. The Celtics’ shots, however, were noticeably forced, trying to make up for the early hole they dug.

“I didn’t think anything was there,’’ coach Doc Rivers said, trying to decipher the final minutes. “We were trying to get something out of nothing. Usually, we’re the team that executes down the stretch.’’

The Celtics hadn’t lost at what’s now called the Wells Fargo Center since March 2007. After getting off to another slow start and then letting the Sixers put four starters in double digits in points, they dropped their second straight game.

The Sixers have been one of the biggest surprises this season, recovering from a 5-14 start to rise to the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference under Doug Collins. The win was a milestone for a young group, especially considering their two losses to the Celtics this season were by a combined 5 points and one came on a Rondo-to-Garnett alley-oop with 1.4 seconds left.

“I don’t even know what to say,’’ Collins said. “Our guys were so tough at the end. Boston is a championship-caliber team. We have been in three games with them like this this season. They won the first two at the end. Tonight we got defensive stops and did what we had to do to get a tough win.’’

Andre Iguodala sealed it with a tough layup, driving past Sasha Pavlovic and into Garnett, for an 89-84 lead with 12 seconds left. Iguodala totaled 13 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists.

Normally, Iguodala would have been Pierce’s defensive assignment, but he had five fouls so Rivers went with Pavlovic.

“We didn’t want to risk that,’’ Rivers said. “The only thing we said out of the timeout is, ‘He has to beat you left.’ We allowed him to get to his right hand. He made a tough shot, but going right he can make that shot. Going left, eh, I’d take my chances.’’

Jeff Green scored a team-high 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Krstic needed 15 shots to get 16 points, and the Sixers lit up at the sight of Krstic defending in the paint. Krstic is still learning the Celtics’ defensive schemes.

“I thought it was more because of the rotations on the pick and rolls,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t think it was a concerted effort, to be honest.’’

After watching his shooting touch abandon him against the Clippers, Garnett struggled from the floor again. He finished 5 of 13, and in the third quarter he hesitated so long on a baseline jumper that his leg stuttered before he decided to shoot, coming up empty.

“I have to be a lot more consistent with what I’m doing,’’ Garnett said.

After the game, Rivers made it a point to tell Garnett, “Be aggressive.’’

“We’re all figuring it out on the go,’’ Garnett said. “Nonetheless, you still gotta get it done.’’

The Celtics are still trying to figure things out with all their new pieces. The Sixers took their lumps early in the season and have started to jell, winning more games than any team in the league since January.

They built a 10-point lead in the third quarter, and gave it back quickly, but when the Celtics took a 76-75 lead with 8:18 left in the fourth on Green’s 14-footer, the Sixers went back into attack mode.

The Celtics had been escape artists in recent games, getting away with blowing leads, starting slow then catching up in the fourth quarter. But in the last two games, they’ve paid for it.

As much as they’re a team in transition, the blame and the responsibility rests with the starters who gave the second unit another deficit.

“The starting five, we’ve got to do a better job of closing the game out,’’ Rondo said. “Also, the past two games we’ve dug a hole. You give a team confidence, a young team, it’s hard to turn it off.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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