Might as well sharpen the old saw: "The great teams win on their bad nights."
Might as well, because tonight the Bullets, especially Frank Johnson and Jeff Ruland, played magnificently and lost, 117-114, to the world champion Philadelphia 76ers, who played with little of the power, teamwork or flair that has put them on a par with the Celtic teams of the 1960s.
In the end, the world champions won on a very quick whistle.
Working with five fouls against him in the last half of the fourth quarter, Ruland went to the basket. Singlehandedly, he took the Bullets from a 114-108 deficit to a tie game with three hard-won shots under the boards in the last minute.
But after the last one, with 12 seconds left in the game, referee Bernie Fryer called Ruland for a technical foul. "It was on Ruland for jumping up and down, screaming and swearing," Fryer, one of those hired as an official while the NBA's regular referees are on strike, said at courtside.
Ruland said, "All I said was, 'Call the foul, call the foul, I got hit in the eye (by Bobby Jones)!' That's exactly what I said. You know there's a lot worse things I could have said."
"I felt like I hit him," said Jones of the foul. "But they don't call everything." Jones said that was not the place to call a technical with the game on the line. He said there were a lot of inconsistencies in the officiating, especially on defensive blocking.
Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham said there was an inconsistency on two blocking calls, one of which prompted him to protest the game at the time.
"It was a poor time to call a technical with 12 seconds left," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "The game should not have been decided with a technical. I'm disappointed because we played the 76ers down to the last 12 seconds."
Moses Malone, for his part, had no problem with the officiating. With his customary straight face, he said, "They did a great job."
"It's very disappointing to play so well, finally tie the score and then lose the game on a call like that," Shue said. "We also got burned on a goal-tending call (against Rick Mahorn) that hurt us.
"Obviously, the Sixers are the champs, so they're going to get a few more free throws than we are. We don't have a lot of players people have heard of."
Malone disagreed. "I don't think that's true. It's not because we're champs. We play to win like anyone else."
When the smoke cleared, the 76ers put the game away.
Jones made the technical and Andrew Toney scored two more free throws after a call on Ricky Sobers to end the game. Johnson, who scored 28 points, tried a last-second three-pointer but was way off.
Ruland had 23 points, as did Julius Erving. Malone and Toney each scored 27.
The Bullets kept it very close throughout the final period, but Philadelphia matched nearly every point with one of its own. The disputed goal-tending call against Mahorn, on Maurice Cheeks' 12-foot jump shot with a little more than a minute left, apparently gave Philadelphia breathing room.
The relief would not come until the final buzzer.
Before a crowd of 16,167 at the Spectrum, these two teams battled each other and tried to assess themselves for the season to come. The Bullets can count themselves improved. Despite their weak showing tonight, so can the 76ers.
Before it all began, the 76ers received their championship jewelry, 14-karat gold rings with 64-point diamonds--$2,000 trinkets commemorating what many believe will be the start of a dynasty.
While Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien handed out the rings, the crowd wildly applauded the championshp banner hanging from the rafters, the team's phenomenal 65-17 regular-season record, and its near-sweep of three playoff series.
The biggest applause came for Erving, who waited a decade for his first NBA title.
Erving began with a little tap-in, a mere hors d'oeuvres. The coming minutes were a feast, mainly for the eyes. Erving scored on three drives, each one of them as individual as a Julia Child souffle.
The first half provided its own measure of frustration for the Bullets. It started out nearly as well as possible. Ruland played aggressively and effectively against Malone and scored nine points in the first quarter. Frequently, he took the ball inside and then fed it back outside to the guards for open jumpers. Johnson played especially well, driving to the basket and challenging Philadelphia's front line. He scored 14 points in the half, nearly all of them on quick moves to the basket.
Shue used three of his rookies in the half: Darren Daye, Jeff Malone and Mike Wilson. Malone was easily the most poised, scoring his first points over Toney to give the Bullets a short-lived eight-point lead.
Only one league official, Darrell Garretson, is working and he was here tonight. As head of the league's referees, Garretson is considered management.