In a splendidly played contest filled with omens -- most of them unpleasant ones for the other six contenders for the NBA's Eastern Conference title -- the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Boston Celtics, 113-104, before a sellout crowd of 17,921 tonight.

The contest was supposedly meaningless. The Celtics already had clinched the Atlantic Division title. In addition, each team was without key personnel, guard Andrew Toney not being in uniform for the 76ers and Danny Ainge and Cedric Maxwell not playing for Boston.

The crowd and the steamy, charged atmosphere in the Spectrum may have had as much to do with the intense play as the teams' bitter rivalry.

Rollie Massimino, coach of NCAA champion Villanova, was present, receiving a big ovation whenever he ventured from his courtside seat, and he, like many others, was on his feet a great deal during the game.

Philadelphia had seven players finish in double figures, led by Moses Malone with 22 points. Malone also had 19 rebounds.

The Celtics (62-17) are just trying to finish the regular season intact. His team suffering from a number of nagging injuries, Boston Coach K.C. Jones had hoped to play Larry Bird, Kevin McHale (a game-high 23 points) and Robert Parish less than 30 minutes each.

However, embarrassed by a 35-22 second-quarter burst by the 76ers, Jones went with his stars in an effort to make the game respectable. In the end, Bird registered 36 minutes and Parish 37.

But 76ers Coach Billy Cunningham didn't take much stock in the scoreboard. "I've seen these teams play too many times. It wouldn't have mattered if we had beaten them by 25 points or if they had done the same to us," he said. "I've learned that there's no carryover effect. One game is just that, one game."

In this particular one, the Celtics sought to use the height advantage of McHale (subbing for Maxwell) over the 76ers' Charles Barkley. McHale scored 16 first-half points, but those points were partially offset by the output of Clint Richardson, Toney's replacement.

Averaging 5.7 points a game, Richardson had eight in the first half (and 16 for the game) as Philadelphia grabbed a 67-52 lead.

With the victory, the 76ers evened the season series between the two clubs at 3-3, each team winning only on its home court. Many folks believe that the Celtics have a better team than the 76ers. However, even with newcomer Ray Williams, Boston doesn't have the depth of Philadelphia, although Bird argues that "we've got the best bench in the league, I don't care what they say."

Such arguments are part of the charm shared by these two teams, as is the obligatory skirmish. On this night, the participants were Barkley and Bird, who had a few unkind words after the 76ers' heavyweight inadvertently twisted Bird's ankle. In response, Barkley shook a massive finger in Bird's face.

The run-in happened as the Celtics, with a 17-6 spurt, were cutting Philadelphia's 22-point third-quarter lead to 103-92 with 5:09 to play.

The Celtics drew to 109-102 on Parish's basket with 1:15 to go but the visitors couldn't sustain the rally, thanks in part to Richardson, who scored the next two points and fed Maurice Cheeks, who made two free throws after being fouled.