The Bullets spent the final 21/2 minutes of last night's game against Philadelphia looking more like a playground pickup team than NBA champions.
They committed five turnovers without taking a shot and handed the opportunistic 76ers a 100-97 triumph before 18,741 stunned fans at Capital Centre.
The last 60 seconds unfolded in almost complete contrast to Washington's brainy effort through the first three quarters. Outmanned in the back court, the Bullets methodically worked the ball inside well enough to protect a small lead most of the way.
But they fell apart in the face of good Philadelphia defense, their own fatigue and inability to move the ball with any crispness on defense.
Washington had a 95-93 lead when the collapse began, Bobby Jones stole the ball from Elvin Hayes off a dribble, but the 76ers couldn't score at the other end.
Then the Bullets failed to get off a shot within 24 seconds. Henry Bibby countered with two free throws off a Bob Dandridge foul.
Dandridge tried to back into the low post on Washington's next possession, but Eric Money sneaked up from the rear and grabed the ball. He was foulded at the other end and made one of three free throws.
Again, Washington worked the ball down low but Wes Unseld wouldn't shoot. He tried to pass out front, but his toss was picked off by the gambling Money, who fed Julius Erving for a flying dunk.
The 76ers now had a 98-95 edge with 36 seconds to go. The Bullets desperately needed points but all they produced was their 14th turnover of the game. Larry Wright worked a give and go with Unseld, but his pass bounced off the big center's leg and Erving quickly responed with another driving basket.
Washington finally got off a shot before time ran out-and missed. After two offensive rebounds, Dandridge was credited with a goal, thanks to a goaltending call on Caldwell Jones.
"We knew Bobby Dandridge had a clear-out play on their first three possessions," said Money, "so I stayed back and helped out on him and forgot about my man.
The Bullets, who normally counter doubleteaming so well with quick passes, were powerless to offset the Sixers' gambling. There was no life left in their bodies, a result of every starter having to play at least 34 minutes.
The fatigue was especially noticeable among the guards. With Kevin Grevey and Tom Henderson sidelined, Wright (40 minutes) and Charles Johnson (38) had to play more than usual.
Philly, which was missing Doug Collins (sprained arch), took advantage by rotating three guards almost equally and producing 48 points from these spots compared to 28 for Washington.
"Wright and Johnson aren't used to playing that long," said 76er Coach Billy Cunningham. "They were sagging inside helping out so we moved the ball inside and then whipped it outside for shots as much as we wanted."
The Bullets got just 13 points from their depleted bench, although they got some help from Mitch Kupchak, returning after a fourgame absence because of a sore back. Philadelphia reserves posted 28 points.
Still, the Bullets played well enough for 46 minutes to win the game. But when it mattered, their offense broke down and according to Coach Dick Motta, so did "our alertness."
"We should never go four possessions without a shot," he said. "They defense had something to do with it. But we just weren't very crisp."
As Dandridge put it, "In the last minute we didn't have good ball movement. They didn't let us get into a running game and in the last half everybody went to playing their own game. The 76ers wanted to run their patterns and stay close and then they probably thought they had a chance to win it."
Washington's front line produced 61 points, Hayes accounting for 23, Unseld 20 and Dandridge 18 despite seven-of-19 shooting. Unseld (16 rebounds) and Hayes (13) also did a good enough job on the boards to control the tempo. They did not enough support.
The game had a playoff-type atmosphere with the large crowd and tense action. It also smacked of the cat-sand-mouse player matchups that make postseason competition so interesting.
The 76ers opened with Erving, who finished with 20 points, guarding Unseld while Bobby Jones, their best defender, handled Dandridge. Unseld continued his feasting on forwards by scoring 13 first-quarter points on six-of-eight shooting.
Philadelphia then put in Darryl Dawkins to control Unseld while its defense sagged inside more than at nay time in last year's playfoff series. Unseld rarely touched the ball in the second half and the scoring load switched to Hayes and Dandridge, who combined for 21 points in the final two quarters.
But with Bobby Jones pumping in 10 in the thire quarter and Money and Erving seven each in the fourth, Washington never could get ahead by more than five. The Bullets last held that margin at 85-80 before missing six straight shots to allow the Sixers to set up the game-ending charge.
Washington won't have much time to rest. The Bullets have to fly up to New Jersey for an 8 p.m. contest tonight against the Nets with their margin over Seattle for the league's best record now down to three games.