The Philadelphia 76ers might have to worry about a certain rookie playing for the New York Knicks next season, but right now they have another center to contend with.

In a highly spirited and hotly contested game, the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics emerged today with a 108-93 victory over the 76ers in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals. Forward Kevin McHale led Boston with a career playoff high 28 points, but his scoring was overshadowed by the overall play of center Robert Parish, who scored 26 and had 13 rebounds and four blocked shots.

"Robert's just like anybody else: you get him the ball, let him know he's part of the team, and he'll come through," said Boston guard Dennis Johnson.

Philadelphia was led by guard Maurice Cheeks' 27 points but the 76ers, who had a week off following their conference semifinal sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, were anything but the well-rested aggressors they were hoping to be.

"We never could get into a groove, we had a lot of turnovers and we didn't react well to each other defensively," Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham said. "I wasn't pleased with the way we played today."

Despite shooting only 44 percent from the field and committing 21 turnovers, the 76ers had a chance to sneak away with a road victory. Although clearly the aggressors, the Celtics never could pull away until the final minutes.

Boston ended the first quarter ahead by 33-28 after leading by seven. They stretched that margin to 11 in the second quarter but had to settle for a 57-52 halftime edge. The margin got to 65-56 in the third period, but at quarter's end, the score stood at 76-73.

Early in the final period, it appeared that the Celtics' lack of a killer instinct would catch up with them. With 11:13 remaining in the game, center Moses Malone hit a fallaway jumper to push Philadelphia into a 77-76 lead.

Eight seconds later, Boston regained the lead as McHale made two free throws. In the next eight minutes, the near-brutality that characterized the entire game become even rougher. Drives into the lane were met with malice, not only from defenders trying to block the shots but also by helpers who more often than not would swat the shooters -- and not the ball -- onto the floor.

"In this series, nothing has changed since time," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said. "When we play in the regular season and then the playoffs, it's a different frame of mind.

"When two teams are playing that tight and working that hard, (the outcome) depends on who gets the breaks. In the last five or six minutes tonight, we did."

Jones was quick to add that the breaks don't come to those who don't put themselves in position to capitalize. Boston did that by constantly pushing the ball up the floor, not letting Philadelphia's defense get entirely set.

When the 76ers did try to spring their half-court traps, often a Celtic would break through for an easy layup.

"I think we've just about mastered that trap by now," said Boston's Larry Bird, who scored 23 points. "Playing a team like Detroit (which the Celtics defeated in their semifinal series that ended Friday) helped because we got used to running. When you can do that in the fourth quarter, it gives you confidence and puts pressure on the other team."

That certainly proved to be the case today. McHale's free throws at the 11:02 mark began an 8-2 Boston run that made the score 84-79 with 9:22 left. Then, after the 76ers had closed to 88-85 with 6:45 to play, another short burst, this one 10-4, stretched the margin to 98-89.

It was then that the game fell apart for Philadelphia. With 3:26 remaining, the 76ers' Julius Erving made a jumper to make the score 98-91. It was the visitors' last field goal.

From that point, the 76ers had eight possessions, but only once -- two free throws by Cheeks at the 2:43 mark -- did something positive happen for them. On the other possessions, the 76ers turned over the ball four times and missed field goal attempts the other three.

"There were 57 seconds left, we were ahead by 10 points or so and I was still worried," said Jones. "I thought they still might hit a few three-point shots."

Cunningham felt his team's extended period of time off wasn't a factor in the game, except possibly for the fact that it extended to Sunday. "We were pleased that we got the week off," he said. "We just haven't had much luck on Mother's Day."

He was alluding to the first game of the teams' 1982 conference finals, when Boston routed the 76ers, 121-81. Three days later, however, Philadelphia evened the series with a 121-113 victory, which perhaps gave added credence to Cunningham's words when referring to Game 2 of this year's series to be played here Tuesday night.

Said Cunningham: "We'll be ready from the get-go the next time."