The final play of the game, an easy score for a guy nearly a foot taller than his defender, was an incorrect representation of the game's entirety.

The 76ers and the Boston Celtics were in a tug-of-war at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night, a back-and-forth, a basketball game unlike the Sixers had previously played.

But in those final seconds, in which Boston's Kevin Garnett caught and finished a lob pass at the rim, the Celtics scored maybe their easiest basket of the night.

It was also the final one of the night.

In front of 17,949 fans - most, but not all, of them rooting for the home team - the Celtics defeated the Sixers, 102-101.

The Sixers dropped to 7-15. The Celtics, led by Ray Allen's 23 points, improved to 18-4.

The Sixers' rotation was essentially locked at seven players: Jrue Holiday (12 points), Jodie Meeks (19), Andre Iguodala (14), Elton Brand (13), Spencer Hawes (11), Thaddeus Young (16), and Lou Williams (16).

This was nearly the defining win of the season.

After mostly losses, and a few victories over mediocre teams, the Sixers were taking a chunk out of the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics.

But, as is often the case against the top of the heap, Boston made a flurry of plays down the stretch: a three pointer by Allen, a mid-range jumper by Glen Davis, and finally that over-the-top lob to Garnett, scored over Holiday with 1.4 seconds left.

"They just drew up a great play," Young said. "We got into a situation where we were forced to switch and it was a big on a small. . . . It was just a great play that they made."

Without another time-out, the Sixers could only attempt a long inbounds pass from under Boston's basket that Garnett intercepted.

"Everything happened so fast," explained Sixers coach Doug Collins. "Garnett is rolling to the basket and they put four shooters out there. . . . Obviously, we'd have liked to have somebody make a jump shot, but it just happened so quickly. That's the difference between a championship team and a team that's cutting its teeth."

The loss ended the Sixers' streak of five consecutive home victories.

It looked like there would be six.

With 6.6 seconds remaining, Iguodala finished a swooping, driving layup - his second basket in 42.1 seconds - to give his team a 101-100 lead.

Boston called a time-out, drew up a play, and took the ball out along the sideline.

"Any time you get beat on the last play, that's a layup, it's a kick in the gut," Collins said.

After the game, Collins showed a mixture of disappointment and excitement: His team suffered a blow, but about a month ago there would have been no end-of-game play to defend.

"This would have been such a big, big win for our group," Collins said. "We've come a long way. We've come a long, long way to go toe-to-toe with the Celtics like that."

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.