Only in the NBA could a team lose a playoff series five days before it was officially pronounced dead. When they have time to collect their wits, if the Philadelphia fans allow that before starting a city-wide zone press with tar and feathers, the 76ers will admit they did not blow the Eastern Conference series today but three games ago.

Up, three games to one, with a four-point lead, less than a minute left and Bobby Jones about to make a layup, the Sixers seemed certain to clinch the title here Wednesday.

"It was very difficult to imagine us winning," Chris Ford said. "But did we believe we'd win? Yes. You have to be on this team to understand that. You just can't give up that faith. If you have one moment of doubt, you're done. The chain is broken."

Inexplicably, Jones bounced the ball off his knee. Right then, the Sixers' faith chain may have snapped, for they have been spooked in every pressure moment since. They give up an unconscionable number of offensive rebounds. In the last few minutes, they try to catch a Robert Parish air ball and muff it out of bounds; they look for open teammates, and find Celtics.

While being polite, Larry Bird was honest enough today after the Celtics' honest enough today after the Celtics' 91-90 victory to admit, "I can't understand why Philadelphia let us back in (the game) so many times . . . a couple of times it seemed like he (Julius Erving) threw the ball to me."

Or to M.L. Carr.

Not on purpose, of course. But the last three games have provided one of the few times in sport when someone honestly neutral can both praise the Celts and bury the Sixers. Ford's position on the Celtics is solid more for his spirit than his shot, and it's worth remembering his saying:

"The last few minutes of the last three games are worth getting films of, running clinics on, putting in the Hall of Fame. You can't play better team defense."

Celtic pride indeed is alive and well.

"What we did was make someone other than Doc beat us," said Carr. "We did this by doubling him and me sort of matching up (on two guys) on the weak side."

Meaning a partial zone defense?

"Meaning weakside help," said Carr, laughing.

There were times today when both teams played as nervously as a hacker pulling back his putter from three feet. Cedric Maxwell tried to tell himself he was a thousand miles away from the free throw line here today.

"I tried to imagine myself in childhood again, in my backyard basket in North Carolina," he said. "Not in front of 20,000 people. I tried to go back to being that little boy again."

And he still missed four of five foul shots in one four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter.

The Celtics went for minutes at a time without scoring. And Coach Bill Fitch matched one brilliant more at the end of the first half, sending Eric Fernsten in for a strategic foul, to benching Bird with just under seven minutes left and the Sixers ahead by five points.

"I guess it was a good idea, 'cause I got a couple steals later," Bird said. "But I want to play all the time."

Nobody in all of sport plays harder than Bird. Assuming no serious injuries, Bird may well end his career as the best forward in the history of basketball. He scores double-figure baskets each game and sets as many picks; he averages a half-dozen assists, and dives on the floor for loose balls at least as often.

He is perhaps the most unselfish superstar in basketball, yet his ego makes him dominant at exactly the right time. Such as today, with the game tied with just over a minute left and Darryl Dawkins missing a shot amid a collision from which even tight ends might not have survived.

Bird came away with the ball and down the court. What he did -- and why -- let the Celts come away with the conference title.

"I had a shot about seven feet out," he said. "Right then, I'd rather have the ball in my hands than anyone on my team, or anyone else in the world. I wanted the ball in that situation. I had it, so I took the shot."

In case you thought, given his stature in the league after just two seasons, that Bird does this sort of thing as routinely as inflation sneaks into double figures, let him continue:

"It's the first time I've ever hit a shot that's won a game for us."

After Carr suggested to Maurice Cheeks that he might miss a free throw -- and he missed for the only time in seven tries -- the Sixers had one second and one play to win. They wanted Bobby Jones to throw a half-court lob; they wanted Erving to jump just short of the stratosphere, catch it and jam in the winning points.

Erving was Maxwell's man, and he lost him for one frightening moment.

Maxwell is as candid as Bird at times. About what would have happened had Jones' pass been on target instead of nearly out of the gym, he said: "It'd been hard for him to get that pass and lived."

He stopped, grimmed and added:

"Guess I shouldn't be saying that."

Perhaps not, considering he had gone into the crowd in Philadelphia during the sixth game Friday and clobbered a 55-year-old fan. Still, Maxwell is tough to dislike for long, especially when he plays series-long defense on such as Erving the way he did these seven games.

"There were some doubts about his defense, his mobility and movement," said the embodiment of Celtic Pride, John Havicek. "But to stay with that type player for that long is tremendous. Now he'll have to do it all the time. It's a good incentive."

The Celtics have another one, which they hope will carry them over the Houston Malones for the NBA title.

"We have one guy, me, who everybody says is too small to play power forward," Maxwell said, "and another one (Bird) who everybody says is too slow for a small forward. They all say Tiny (Archibald) and Chris are too slow at the guards. Well, we're great team. And this great team beat a great squad ."