Julius Erving called it a classic finish to a classic game, which is like Bruce Springsteen saying it was dynamite finish to a far-out concert.
The dramatic conclusion to Philadelphia's exciting 95-92 victory over the Bullets last night at Capital Centre was a pure Erving production.
With 43 seconds remaining and the 76ers clinging to a one-point lead, the visitors cleared out an entire side of the court, isolating Erving against Greg Ballard.
It was Dr. J in the purest form. His game to win or lose. He crouched low, dribbling and eying Ballard. A head shake, then a shoulder fake failed to throw the defender offstride. It wasn't going to be easy.
Finally, Erving made his move right, stopped leaped, turned in the air and flicked his right wrist. It was all net and the only thing that could bring the Bullets back was a three-point shot. Frank Johnson got two opportunities, but his shot had been off all night and these two also misfired.
"It was a classic finish," Erving said after his 26-point performance. "This was the first game all year that went down to a last shot for us. The way the teams were trading baskets, it was just a classic game."
With 49 turnovers (28 by the Bullets) disrupting the flow and the Bullets' semipro shooting performance (.438), the game never will be a film classic, but it will be difficult to beat for drama.
There were four ties and never more than four points separating the teams in the fourth quarter. After the last deadlock at 90 on Jeff Ruland's driving left-handed hook, Caldwell Jones put the 76ers back in front by making one of two free throws.
Ruland was called for walking and the visitors increased their lead to three points on a 20-footer by Lionel Hollins. Rick Mahorn (19 points, 13 rebounds), grabbed an offensive rebound and made a 12-foot turn-around jumper in the lane to make it 93-92.
That set the stage for Erving's dramatics.
"Why play games?" Coach Billy Cunningham asked rhetorically. "We went to Doc because he's Julius Erving.
"We've got all sorts of sets, two or three different ways to get him loose, a lot of ways to get him the ball, but why fool around? We just cleared out a side and let him do this thing."
One reason why the 76ers were so confident that they could isolate Erving is because the Bullets had been called for an illegal (zone) defense in the second quarter. After the first warning, the second violation brings a technical foul. The Bullets couldn't afford that, so once the 76ers spread the court there was no way to give Ballard any help.
"It's nice to have that edge (the early warning)," Cunningham admitted. "We knew the Bullets couldn't afford to double up on Doc, so we went to the isolation."
Ballard knew what was coming, but he hardly could be expected to prevent Erving from getting off a good shot. His only hope was the percentages. After all, not even Dr. J makes 'em all.
"He had been shooting well all night," Ballard said. "When you're one-on-one like that, you just have to square up and not go for the first fake. You try to use all the basic defensive things you've learned, but when the Doctor goes up in the air, there's not a whole lot you can do."
The idea, of course, is not to let it come down to Erving having the ball with the game in the balance. This could have been prevented if the Bullets had been able to protect the 72-68 advantage they took into the fourth quarter.
In the final period, however, the Bullets made a mere eight of 25 shots and one of their best offensive weapons was ineffective.During their recent surge of 11 victories in 19 games they frequently called on Jeff Ruland down low to get critical points.
Ruland (17 points) was stymied this time by Caldwell Jones, an old pro who blocked five shots in the final quarter.
"CJ took us out of our offense," said Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "Jeff was getting the same position down low he usually gets, but CJ was blocking his shots.
One reason the Bullets were counting so much on Ruland was that they got very little production from their guards. Starters Kevin Grevey and Frank Johnson had nine and eight points, respectively, and Don Collins contributed only four.