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Celtics fade again

Second-half slump clears way for Sixers

PHILADELPHIA -- In the fourth quarter, the Celtics received the kind of performance they have come to expect from Paul Pierce. He took over on the offensive end, scoring 13 of his team's final 17 points. At one point, he accounted for 11 straight Boston points, despite persistent double-teams.

He came up with a clutch 3-pointer in the closing minutes despite an outstretched Eric Snow just inches away. He looked like the aggressive, determined leader from last season.

Unfortunately, the Celtics fell victim to the kind of collapse they have become known for in recent games. As a result, the 12-point lead Boston built in the first half turned into an 87-85 loss at the hands of the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia 76ers. It marked the Celtics' third straight loss, their second in a row that was marked by the failure to sustain first-half momentum.

"It was a disappointing second half again," said coach Jim O'Brien, whose team squandered a 17-point lead in New York Monday. "It did not look like the same team from a flow standpoint in the second half. And I don't have answers.

"[The Sixers] did nothing that I saw to change things. We just have to play a brand of basketball we've been playing in the first halves of basketball games. Honest to God, I can't figure it out. If I could, maybe we wouldn't be having this difficulty."

The players echoed O'Brien's sentiments. The Celtics may not know why they faltered, but the statistics give a good idea what happened.

After shooting 56 percent in the second quarter and taking a 51-42 halftime lead, Boston abandoned its style of play, particularly on offense.

In the third quarter, the attack essentially came to a standstill as the Celtics went 2 for 12 from the floor, scoring just 15 points. They also committed six turnovers, one fewer than their first-half total.

The Sixers, meanwhile, shot 53 percent and tied the score, 57-57, by opening the third with a 15-6 run. Overall in the second half, Boston shot 28 percent.

"I really don't understand it," said Pierce, who had 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. "We thought we had learned our lesson in the game vs. New York. Some way, somehow, we play good first halves, and then, in the third quarter, we start to let teams back into the game.

"I don't understand that. We are not playing with a sense of urgency for the whole 48 minutes."

As if Boston's offensive woes were not enough to deal with in the third, Allen Iverson (24 points, 8 assists) made his presence felt with scoring and passing. After missing a fast-break dunk with no one around him early in the period, Iverson made amends.

His highlights included a fast-break dunk he did convert with 6:43 to play. Then there was the alley-oop pass he zinged to Amal McCaskill for a dunk that tied the score, 60-60, with 2:57 left. Iverson finished his third-quarter scoring with a 3-point play that brought Philadelphia within 66-65.

"The second half was basically just executing the true game plan," said Snow. "We came out and had more energy and more effort and were able to get some more transition baskets."

The Celtics did not show what Pierce believes to be the requisite urgency until late in the fourth, but by then they were trying desperately to catch up. A driving layup by Iverson gave Philadelphia an 8-point advantage (83-75) with 3:33 left. Then Pierce singlehandedly brought Boston back.

Pierce won a jump ball with Iverson and promptly hit a 3-pointer to tie the game, 83-83, with 1:28 to go. Philadelphia went ahead on a 20-footer from Aaron McKie. But with a chance to tie and Pierce aggressively double-teamed, the Celtics committed a shot-clock violation for their 15th and final turnover.

They also failed on a second chance to tie or take the lead when Walter McCarty missed a 3-pointer from the left corner. A pair of free throws by Iverson with 5.1 seconds left essentially sealed the game.

"It's very disheartening to lose another game like this," said Vin Baker, who scored 15 of his 22 points in the first half. "We had it going in the first half and they turned up the intensity in the second half. We are losing so many close games, it's tough right now."

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