FRANKLY, I WASN'T looking for a moral victory last night from the Sixers.

This wasn't strictly a pass/fail exam, but the Sixers showed on Opening Night against the Miami Heat that they could compete with the top teams.

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Despite having won just seven times in their first 21 games, the Sixers had been hammered only twice - at San Antonio and at Toronto.

The Sixers had won four of their last five games and had a five-game winning streak at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Boston Celtics had the second-best record in the league and were riding an eight-game winning streak.

But they had played Wednesday and were without starting center Shaquille O'Neal.

If the Sixers really wanted to show that their current upswing was a sign that they were turning a corner, this was the type of game they needed to win - not just play well in.

They played well.

This became a bit more dramatic when Kevin Garnett hit a layup with 1.4 seconds to go to give the Celtics a 102-101 victory. But a lot of this contained the same elements we've seen from the Sixers all season.

The Sixers get control of a game.

The Sixers lose control of a game.

The Sixers fight hard to get back into a game.

The Sixers don't make enough plays at the end to win a game.

I'm sure there's a reason why Jrue Holiday ended up in a fatal mismatch under the basket with Garnett on the game's decisive play, but it doesn't really matter.

The 14th and final lead change of the fourth quarter meant the Sixers had been handed a tough lesson from which to learn.

What's the lesson this time?

Don't let a team like the Celtics shoot 55.9 percent from the floor or you're likely to lose?

I bet most of you knew that going in, so why wouldn't the Sixers?

It probably isn't fair to not give the Sixers credit for playing the Celtics as tough as anyone has played them since they last lost a game, Nov. 21 in Toronto.

Still, this "growing pains" stuff has become a little stale.

More than a quarter of the season is done. The Sixers need to stop talking about it and just grow up already.

Being grown up means you don't take an 80-72 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter and then get outscored, 9-0.

Being grown up means you don't leave Celtics guard Ray Allen - the best pure shooter of his generation - wide-open for a three-pointer when you're leading, 97-95, with 64 seconds left in the game.

Come on, everyone on the Sixers roster had to know that Allen was the one guy you couldn't leave alone to drain a three-pointer.

If you knew it, how did you let it happen?

Being grown up means you don't have Andre Iguodala finally make a clutch bucket down the stretch to give you a 101-100 advantage with 6.6 seconds on the clock, and then create a way to lose the game.

Without question, the Celtics had a lot of options on the court to beat the Sixers - Allen with a jumper, Paul Pierce on an isolation play, Rajon Rondo with a drive to the basket.

But if you're going to match Boston's small-lineup substitution by bringing in Lou Williams for Elton Brand, there is no way you can do a switch that allows the 6-4 Holiday to get caught trying to guard the 6-11 Garnett rolling to the basket.

"We did everything we said we wanted to do on defense, which was when . . . they get in a screen-and-roll, we just switch in order to hold the big guys up and stuff like that," Sixers forward Thaddeus Young said.

"So we did everything we wanted to do; they just made a great play and lobbed it over the top and [Garnett] made a layup."

Clearly, the Sixers are playing much better than the team that started the season 3-13, but the glass has not yet reached half full.

Last night, against Boston, was an opportunity for the Sixers to make a statement about themselves.

Of course, on paper, they should not have been expected to beat the Celtics.

But the bottom line is that the way the game played out, the Sixers were only a few plays away from getting their first signature win of the season.

They didn't get it done - just like they haven't gotten it done on several other occasions this season.

"We just did so many good things," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "It was just discouraging for the guys.

"This would have been such a big win for our group. We have come a long way to go toe-to-toe with the Celtics like that. We just have to keep moving forward."

Sure, but youth, inexperience and growth are getting to be harder sells as the losses keep mounting.

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