THE 15 LOSSES have mounted in a variety of ways, though rarely blowouts.

Last night's might have been the most crushing. Yet most promising.

Kevin Garnett hit a layup with 1.4 seconds remaining on a nifty pass from Rajon Rondo to give the Celtics a 102-101 win over the Sixers, who had taken the lead with 6.6 seconds remaining on a tough runner by Andre Iguodala.

At halftime at the Wells Fargo Center, a tandem called Quick-Change entertained the crowd. Their gimmick is this: A man acts like a magician, waving a towel or curtain quickly over and around his female companion, as she changes outfits in the blink of an eye. Yellow dress goes to green gown, then to a red salsa dress.

Too many times this season, the Sixers have done a quick change late in ballgames. They'll play well enough to win, maybe even forge a big lead, only to morph into a team that is unrecognizable, blowing the lead and, ultimately, the game.

Last night, though, was different. The game was close throughout. The Sixers belonged on the court with the Celtics for all 48 minutes. They didn't lose this game; instead, the Celtics won it, grabbing their ninth straight win and halting the Sixers' home winning streak at five.

"What a heartbreaking loss," Sixers coach Doug Collins said after his team fell to 7-15. "To play so hard and so well. That Celtics team is so good, so well-coached, and they have so many different ways that they can attack you on the offensive end. It was just a shame. It would have been an incredible win for us here. We had a great crowd tonight, and we had some good plays. I just feel so badly for our guys."

On the winning play, Rondo got the inbounds pass and was pressured by Jrue Holiday. Rondo, who finished with 14 assists, calmly waited as Garnett set a pick on Holiday, then rolled to the basket. Holiday switched with Thaddeus Young, but instead of staying behind Garnett, got caught in front of him. Rondo lofted a perfect pass that Garnett caught and deposited in one motion.

Same result that has happened many times this season, but a different feeling.

"We played great," said Elton Brand, who finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds. "They drew up a great play to defeat us. It's a shot in the heart, a tough loss. We shared the ball, we played defense. We just came up a few seconds short.

"It's a little easier [than other losses]; they were in the championship last year. But you're measured by wins and losses. They're the measuring stick. They're the top team in the East. We played well, we just couldn't finish it."

So many plays, so many sequences formed the final score. With the Sixers ahead, 80-72, late in the third quarter, Boston went on a 9-0 run, ending the quarter with a banked three-pointer by Rondo just before the buzzer.

The Sixers were able to grab a four-point lead with 1:58 left in the game when Brand hit a 12-footer for a 97-93 lead, but Ray Allen (game-high 23 points) made two foul shots, then drained an inexplicably wide-open three for a 98-97 lead with 1:04 remaining.

Iguodala, who collected 14 points and 11 assists, hit two runners in the lane around a 10-footer by Glen Davis. The second of Iguodala's shots gave the Sixers the lead with 6.6 seconds remaining. Plenty of time for Boston to work its magic.

"I got hit by a screen, and K.G. rolled," said Holiday, who had 12 points and six assists. "I wasn't trying to front him. I got hit by a screen. I should have grabbed him or something, but it was kind of unexpected.

"We don't know [what Boston was going to do]. They have so many scorers in Paul Pierce and K.G. and Ray Allen out there. You really don't know. They have too many options."

The Sixers got a balanced attack, as Jodie Meeks led them with 19 points, while Young and Lou Williams contributed 16 each off the bench.

"Any time you get beat on the last play and it's a layup, it's a kick in the gut," Collins said. "The thing I was happy about is this Celtics team, I think, is the best defensive team in the NBA. My biggest concern in the last 5 minutes of the game was I didn't want to get into a halfcourt game. We've just got to keep moving forward. That's the difference between a championship team and one that's cutting its teeth."

But the gap appears to be closing a little bit right now.

"We're one of those teams that are always going to hold our heads up, no matter what," Young said. "Never lose confidence. We're going to keep staying with the high hopes and going out there continuing to play hard and get wins." *

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