RAY ALLEN suspended, Kevin Garnett nursed, Paul Pierce limited by his coach.

That's the Celtics team the Sixers lost to last night, 100-98, extending their season-high losing streak to six.

And this was a Sixers squad energized by the festivities of a home finale and the return of forward Thaddeus Young, out the past seven games with right foot and ankle injuries.

It also was a Sixers squad that faced a Celtics team playing for nothing, locked into the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

So, yes, the Celts went without two-thirds of their Big Three, a pair who will certainly return for the playoffs, which being this weekend, possibly against the Sixers, in Boston. What's more, Celtics big men Leon Powe and Glenn Davis were anything but whole. Powe missed the previous 11 games with a knee injury, and Davis was nursing a cold. The Sixers also made five technical free throws, the T's issued to five different Celtic miscreants.

Thus handicapped, the Celtics erased a six-point Sixers lead early in the fourth quarter. Andre Iguodala's one-on-one drive against Paul Pierce with 4 seconds to play resulted in a wild miss, and that was that.

The loss means the Sixers need a win tonight in Cleveland and a Bulls loss to visiting Toronto to clinch the No. 6 seed and a first-round trip to Orlando. Otherwise, they go to Boston, against whom they lost all four games this season.

"Really disappointed with this loss," said coach Tony DiLeo.

He saw effort, and he saw improvement, and he saw Young play stronger and longer than expected. He saw Iguodala drop 25.

"We should have won the game," Iguodala said. "They used a second unit the majority of the game."

So, the Sixers saw the same result. And they might see it again tonight.

"We need to play with a sense of urgency," said guard Willie Green.

With nothing to play for, their opponents seem to be doing that.

The Cavs have home court throughout the playoffs, and, as such, nothing to play for . . . except immortality. The Cavs are 39-1 at home, one win shy of tying the Celtics' 23-year-old home-court record.

Do the Cavs play LeBron James and their other top players and risk injury . . . or do they sit them and risk losing?

"That's a no-win," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "That's an awful place to be."

It's a place any team would love to be. It's a place the Sixers cannot approach.

Pierce, the third and final gem in the Celtics' crown, was scheduled to sit last night. Instead, he talked his way into 30 minutes of playing time. He scorched the Sixers for 31 points on 12-for-16 shooting.

The Celtics played without Allen, suspended for one game for throwing an elbow at the groin of Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao on Sunday. They also lacked Garnett, who missed his 24th game of the season. The team hoped he might be ready for last night's game. Instead, he will miss the last eight games of the season with a sore right knee; last night was his seventh.

The Sixers, meanwhile, got a key cog back.

Young, with only two hard workouts under his belt, was surprisingly near the form that made him the Sixers most exciting player before he sprained his ankle and bruised a bone in his foot 2 weeks before. He finished with 18 points, most of them thrilling.

He had a trio of monstrous dunks, but his spin moves over Powe to start the game and to give the Sixers a 95-93 lead with 4:17 to play were more indicative of the sort of half-court offense the Sixers lacked when they lacked him.

The Sixers looked better than they had looked. They played the Celtics close.

An uninspired, depleted, fretful Celtics team.

And they lost. *