THERE WAS NO late-game injury in this one to give the 76ers hope for the rest of the series. Instead, the Boston Celtics were the ones laying on the pain, as they rode a second-quarter, 9-minute, 6-second explosion to a 107-91 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Even worse for the Sixers wasn't the how it was done, but who did it. The Celtics' stars, namely Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, shined brightly as Boston convincingly thumped the Sixers.

"We ran into a Celtic team that had a sense of purpose," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "You could see from moment one they wanted to push the ball, get early posts with Garnett. Their three stars played great tonight. Rondo controlled the game, Garnett was great, Pierce was terrific. We got seduced early in the game; we got in a nice rhythm offensively and we never got into a defensive mindset. Then they ran out on the break and scored."

Boston scored a ton, specifically during the punch that came early in the second quarter and lasted mostly throughout the game. After a Thaddeus Young jumper gave the Sixers a lead of 35-28 with 11:29 to go in the quarter, the Celtics pretty much did whatever they wanted, going on an 28-8 run that ended with little time left in the half.

Defensively during the burst, they held the Sixers to 3-for-14 shooting, won the rebounding advantage by 16-5, forced a couple of turnovers and seemingly got a hand on or near each shot attempt. Offensively, Boston made 12 of its 16 shots, including a pair of threes by Mickael Pietrus, and got 13 steal-your-heart points from Garnett.

The Sixers quickly scored six straight points to cut the lead to seven, at 56-49, but then allowed Rondo to score the quarter's final four points to open the lead to 60-49 at the break.

While the coffin on this one was seemingly closed after that second quarter in which the Celtics outscored the Sixers, 32-16, it was cemented shut by Boston's 29-17 third-quarter blitz that, at one time, had the lead at 25.

Garnett (27 points, 13 rebounds), Pierce (24 points, 12 rebounds) and Rondo (23 points, 14 assists) were the main workers. After the third quarter, the Celtics starters outscored the Sixers starters by a 75-29 margin.

"When you make shots, everything looks better," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "We made some shots, but I thought we got shots the right way. We played in-to-out the right way, either with drives to the basket or getting the ball to the post.

"Paul was 2-for-10 at halftime, but had five offensive rebounds. If what you do well is going well, what else are you doing to do to help the team? I thought a lot of guys had that kind of game."

While the victory is the most important product of the 48 minutes, having it done by the Big 3 was even more beneficial for the Celtics and more damning to the Sixers. Pierce had been quiet for the first two games of the series, while Garnett was held to just 12 shots and 15 points in Game 2. Wednesday, they all had their series coming-out party at the same time.

"Sometimes you have to give credit to your opponent," said Collins. "They brought out our weakness tonight. They have a guy out there [Rondo] who is a quarterback. I haven't seen Rondo that often in terms of the playoffs, but he is a tremendous player. He was with Ray [Allen] and Paul and Kevin and then all of a sudden his role started changing and having more impact on everything. He takes the ball wherever he wants to the floor. They just did a better job."

After grabbing a 33-28 lead at the end of the first, the Sixers clearly had no answers, on either end of the floor.

"We made a lot of growth in those first two games, but we took a step back when we got down tonight," said Elton Brand. "We're going to have to have a great bounce-back game on Friday, which I think we will. We started off that first quarter pretty well, but they wanted it, they put more effort into their execution. They got the ball to where they wanted to go and they hit their shots.

"Our goal was to hold Paul Pierce down. We didn't want him to get off at all. So for him to have a big game, along with Garnett and Rondo having huge games, hurts a little bit."

Few had big games for the Sixers, save the 22 points from always-hustling forward Thaddeus Young. Jrue Holiday scored 15 and dealt nine assists, but 10 of his points came in the first quarter. He was held scoreless in the decisive second, missing his only shot. Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks each scored 13, all but two of Meeks' coming in the second half and Andre Iguodala had a quiet 10.

Now Friday turns into a must win for the Sixers, if they are to have any hope of winning this series. And they'll have to do it while trying to slay all the awakened Celtic giants.

"This is a team that didn't want to be down 2-1 playing Game 4," said Collins of the Celtics. "They've been in a lot of these games, they know how important swing games are, to get homecourt advantage back."

Garnett, Pierce and Rondo proved just that on Wednesday.

Contact Bob Cooney at cooneyb@phillynews.com. Read the Daily News' Sixers blog at www.philly.com/Sixerville