Six minutes from the official end, although the Bullets had all but been assured victory long before, Rick Mahorn threw in a massive dunk over Mark McNamara. From the public-address system came: "wrapup prizes." From Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham came: "10 o'clock tomorrow morning."
It was a typical, yet curious, NBA evening. The team that had to win, the Bullets, won. But even the Philly reserves also seemed to take the final home game off. Or at least enough for Cunningham to cancel a scheduled day off.
There was no lack of effort from Abe Pollin's other plucky gang.
There never is.
"We've been in the worst playoff position for weeks," Gene Shue was saying after the 95-76 rout. "We've had to win 12 of our last 14 just to get where we are."
Which is dashing for a radio after his team had blown the favorite to win the NBA playoffs off its home court, trying to catch late bulletins from Kansas City and New York. It's important for the Bullets to win their remaining games; it's imperative for the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks to lose one of theirs. The Hawks cooperated later tonight.
This was "Fan Appreciation Night" here, with 76 prizes (get it?) distributed throughout breaks in the game. Actually, there was a 77th giveaway: the game.
The Sixers played hard until they realized the Bullets would play harder longer. When they could not control the game after an ugly beginning by the Bullets, they started saving energy. After all, it was meaningless to most of them. Except the coach, who picked at his teeth and his mind much of the second half.
"Get over here," he shouted once to Earl Cureton, "or you're sitting."
Cureton moved toward where Cunningham was pointing.
And the Bullets threw a lob pass over him for a layup.
The Doctor, Julius Erving, was The Intern this once. He was one for seven from the field, one for four on fouls and had three turnovers the first half. Incredibly, Washington shot 33 percent the first 24 minutes, and led by nine points.
Shue was quick to soothe Philly egos.
"Very thankful Moses (Malone) has been out (with tendinitis)," he said. "Very fortunate we were able to get (Andrew) Toney out (early in the second half) with foul trouble."
He was equally hasty in stoking his own team's self-esteem.
"Our defense is great," he said. "One of the best, if not the best, in the league. I've had teams that could play defense, when motivated. Ours is good just about every night. No shot blockers, but a lot of helpers.
"Just like tonight."
Even for the Bullets, it would be tough to start a game more negatively on offense. Jeff Ruland missed a layup, Frank Johnson threw a backdoor pass out of bounds, Greg Ballard missed two relatively open jumpers the same trip down court.
Still, they led by a point, 13-12.
Shortly, there came a perfectly timed break that illustrated how the entire night would go: During a timeout, announcer Dave Zinkoff gave away "10 spring transmission checkups." Cunningham was checking Sixer transmissions, and finding most of them clogged.
The week began here with the Sixers involved in one of those hints of conspiracy that pop up now and then in a league that allows so many teams into its playoffs. That was because Malone played hard in the Sixers' victory over the Knicks Sunday and did not make the trip to Atlanta Tuesday against the Hawks. Earlier, he was supposed to play against Washington tonight.
Cunningham is said to loathe Knicks Coach Hubie Brown and dislike Shue; he adores Hawks Coach Kevin Loughery.
Atlanta beat the Mosesless Sixers, but the game included 10 technicals and a furious Philly rally near the end. Still, some pressure from the league office may have kept Malone on the bench tonight.
If there was any logic both to the NBA regular season and thoughts of evil by skeptics, the Sixers would love to see the Bullets grab the sixth--and final--playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. What could be better, in their minds, than for the Bullets to meet the Celtics?
The Celts might win, as they did last year. They also would be mightily bruised, as they also were. That would make the Philadelphia playoff path much easier.
The Bullets' journey always is cluttered. Bodies battered; Spencer Haywood retiring. Harmless players such as Joe Kopicki contributing.
Tonight, Kopicki set his usual quota of inside picks, grabbed five rebounds and scored seven points in 18 minutes. One of his sad shots turned out well, that being an air ball from three-point range that Dave Batton recovered and put in. The refugee from the Continental Basketball League also scored the final basket of the game.
Cut by Atlanta, cut by Indiana earlier this season, Kopicki was signed by the Bullets in early March to replace Haywood, at least on the roster. Given double figures in minutes by Shue against Utah and the Pacers, he scored and rebounded in bunches.