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Celtics get deep-sixed

Without injured star Pierce, Boston looks sickly vs. lowly Philadelphia

For almost a month, the Philadelphia 76ers searched for a way to win. First, they tried with Allen Iverson. Then they went without the player who had been the face of the franchise for 10-plus seasons and the league's leading scorer when he requested a trade a little more than two weeks ago. As a result, it took another shorthanded team to level the playing field for the 76ers. Missing leading scorers Paul Pierce (stress reaction left foot) and Wally Szczerbiak (sprained right ankle), the Celtics happened to be just that team.

The 76ers actually may have been at an advantage since they have spent weeks figuring out how to play without their one-time star. The Celtics had less than 36 hours and it showed. As the young Celtics tried to replace the 44.7 points per game provided by Pierce and Szczerbiak, they forgot about defense. With Boston struggling on both ends, Philadelphia earned a 98-83 win last night at the Garden, snapping a 12-game losing streak. The lone AI left on the 76ers, Andre Iguodala, led the visitors with a career-high 31 points.

"I told the guys that I was extremely disappointed because every single guy thought that his job was to divvy up shots," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Nobody came today to play defense . . . Every guy on our team was thinking about how they were going to help us on the offensive end. They thought about Paul's and Wally's shots. Not one single player in our locker room thought about how he was going to help us on the defensive end.

"We are not outscoring anybody with what we have. We have to play great defense and we have to play with great energy. We can't get outhustled, outrebounded. We have very few multiple pass plays because every guy that caught the ball was thinking about shots. [They were saying to themselves], 'It's my time to show everybody that I can play' . . . Without Wally and Paul, it has to be a great defensive team. If we're not, we'll keep losing."

Rivers's postgame comments were clearly a continuation of the message he delivered to the players. Whether or not that message gets through before the season spirals downward remains to be seen. Boston will not practice for three days before heading west for a game against Iverson in Denver Tuesday night. Rivers said playing the Nuggets with Iverson, but without Carmelo Anthony (15-game suspension), will be a lot like playing the 76ers. Rivers can only hope it goes better than it did last night.

It wasn't long before Philadelphia essentially took control of the contest with Samuel Dalembert scoring at will inside throughout the first quarter. Dalembert broke a 20-20 tie with his second slam dunk as the 76ers took the lead for good. The dunk sparked a 17-1 Philadelphia run.

Rodney Carney capped the spurt with another dunk and the visitors held a 14-point lead (35-21) with 8 minutes 55 seconds remaining in the first half. Boston responded with a 9-1 spurt and entered halftime behind, 48-41.

After failing to make up ground in the third, it was clear the young Celtics (10-15) were in no position to beat even the worst team in the league. Philadelphia (6-19) pushed its advantage to 10 points (73-63) after three, taking full advantage of Boston's defensive shortcomings. The 76ers did much the same in the fourth, shooting 75 percent (9 for 12) while the Celtics forced shots and committed careless turnovers and fouls.

No sooner had Boston pulled within 4 points (75-71), than Kyle Korver was left open for a 3-pointer and a 14-footer that quickly restored Philadelphia's comfortable cushion again. With the Celtics trailing big down the stretch, Green (20 points), Al Jefferson (20 points, 14 rebounds), and Tony Allen (12 points) all tried to do their best Pierce impressions on offense. But as Rivers made abundantly clear, that was not what Boston needed.

"They're going to have to realize none of them are Paul or Wally and none of them are good enough to just put the team on their back and score," said Rivers. "But if they do it together they can win games . . . This is nothing like last year when we just played the young guys, win or lose. We're trying to win games."

In order for that to happen, the Celtics must figure out how to carry on without Pierce and Szczerbiak, though Szczerbiak could return in less than a week. If Boston cannot win without their leading scorer, the team may find itself sharing more in common with Philadelphia than it would like. The Celtics could be staring at an extended losing streak.

That's not at all how Boston wants to end one year and start another.

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