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Celtics 99, 76ers 82

Celtics handle Sixers

Pierce, mates turn it up in second half

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 6, 2011

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At the very least, Rajon Rondo is one Celtic with his eye on the standings.

The 76ers were in sixth place. The Celtics had dropped to third after dozing off at the wheel for much of March.

A first-round run-in seems like a real possibility and there’s no doubt the Celtics had heard that the 76ers are the type of young, athletic team that could have a higher seed like the Celtics waking up in cold sweats.

The Celtics have past playoff scares like the series against the Hawks in 2008 and the Bulls in 2009. They have games against Chicago and Miami left on the schedule, but Rondo was the first to say that last night’s 99-82 win over Philadelphia at TD Garden was a chance to send a message in case the teams meet in the opening round.

“We’re not going to play those guys [the Bulls and Heat] in the first round,’’ said Rondo after the Celtics climbed into a tie for second in the Eastern Conference with the Heat. “Tonight was a good test for us. They might be a first-round team and we did a good job making a little statement as far as it’s going to be difficult to beat us in a seven-game series.’’

The Sixers threw their punches. There were 19 lead changes in the first half and Jrue Holiday and Jodie Meeks both had scored in double digits by the break.

But the Celtics showed in one quarter how drastic the difference is between first-round good and Finals good.

Ahead, 54-50, at the half, Kevin Garnett hit the Celtics’ first three field goals to start the third quarter, sparking a 9-0 run. Their defense was key, putting the Sixers in a chokehold (5 of 20 in the third quarter) and placing the Celtics a safe distance ahead.

“It was pretty much the reason why we made the run,’’ Rondo said of the team’s defensive effort.

Even when Philly cut it to 64-60 with 4:45 left after Elton Brand knocked down an 11-footer, the Celtics, who had blown their share of leads in recent weeks, were ready to douse any attempt at a comeback.

“Doc [Rivers] always says when we get these leads we get a little lackadaisical with just the simple plays that we need to make,’’ said Paul Pierce.

So they put together a sort of statistical magic trick. After shooting 56.4 percent in the first half and being up just 4, they shot 40 percent in the third quarter and went up double digits, thanks to their defense.

When Rondo raced down the floor in 4.1 seconds and drilled a floater that popped the nets just as time expired, the Celtics were up, 75-65, all but finishing off the Sixers.

“We ran up against a team that played probably as well as they’ve played in a long time,’’ said Sixers coach Doug Collins.”

The Sixers looked like a different team from one half to the other. In the first half, Thaddeus Young crashed the glass and punished the Celtics with putbacks. In the second he blew layups and the Celtics capitalized. In the first half, the Sixers shot 50 percent (21 of 42). They were 12 for 42 in the second.

“We were definitely satisfied with that first half, only being down 4 with a few mental lapses,’’ Brand said. “We said, ‘OK, we took their best punch.’ It got away from us in that third quarter. They hit us with some shots.’’

Meeks (10 points) and Holiday (11) didn’t score in the second half. There was, however, an Evan Turner sighting. He scored 21 points, a reminder that he was the first player taken after John Wall in last summer’s draft. But when he hit a 3-pointer with 6:39 left in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had the Sixers in an 83-72 hole.

Four of the five Celtics starters finished in double figures. Rondo casually put together a 16-point, 13-assist night. Pierce put up a game-high 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting and yanked down seven rebounds.

“You can kind of see what our guys are doing,’’ said Rivers. “They’re in some ways sharpening their tools in spurts. As a coach you want to do that and keep doing it, but they know where they’re at.’’

The Sixers came into the Garden knowing there’s a good chance they’ll see the Celtics when the playoffs start next week. And now they know exactly how far apart the two teams are.

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

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