In one of those rare early season games that has the class of a playoff confrontation, the Philadelphia 76ers blew a 32-point first-half lead before rallying behind Julius Erving to dump the Washington Bullets, 123-122, Friday night.
The game wasn't decided until the last buzzer, when Larry Wright's desperation 30-footer hit the side of the rim and bounced away to leave the Capital Centre crowd of 14,697 exhausted from the emotional contest.
It was a night when Erving had his magic, scoring 12 points in the last 4:20 after the Bullets had taken a 113-108 lead and seemed on the verge of winning a game they apparently had kicked away in the first half.
The Bullets try again tonight in San Antonio at 8:30 (WDCA-TV-20).
In last night's game, Elvin Hayes' turn-around jumper was on a radar track to the basket despite the guarding of four different 76er players. Hayes had 36 points. 29 coming in the last half to pull his club within a breath of triumph.
But ultimately it was a night when Philadelphia, which has lost only once this year in 10 games and hasn't been beaten by an NBA team other than Washington since March, kept its poise at the end while the Bullet stumbled under the pressure.
Washington committed four turnovers in the final 3 1/2 minutes. All were by Wright, who still is recovering from a severe foot sprain. The mistakes led to seven Philly points, including a free throw by rookie Maurice Cheeks with eight seconds left that was the winning margin.
Wright was playing in place of starter Tom Henderson, who sat out the last quarter. Coach Dick Motta wanted to put Henderson into the game with 2:45 to go but, Henderson said, "I had been sitting out for 10 minutes and it would have taken me too long to get back into the pace of the game. I told him (Motta) to let Larry go ahead and play. It would be better for the team."
In the last minutes, Erving took on the Bullets in an one-five game that didn't seem uneven despite the odds.
Erving quickly wiped out Washington's 113-108 lead with five points, the tying two coming on a flying dunk after a steal from Wright. So the Bullets built another five-point bulge, aided by a technical on Coach Billy Cunningham, before Erving again took charge.
He drove by Mitch Kupchak, made a layup and was fouled to give him a three-point play. Wright tossed away a pass at the other end and Doug Collins, who had 24 points to support Erving's 26, swished an 18-footer to create another tie.
Philly was on top moments later. Bob Dandridge, who got all of his 20 points in the second half, couldn't make a long jumper as the 24-second clock ran out and Kupchak fouled Erving on the rebound. The Philly star was flawless on both tries for a 122-120 lead with 25 seconds to go.
Washington called time out, then couldn't get off a shot against Philly's impressive, scrambling zone. Cheeks knocked the ball away from Wright, who fouled the 76er rookie with eight seconds, remaining. Cheeks missed the first free throw but made the second.