Larry Bird's trigger finger was swollen badly, an elbow ached and an ankle throbbed; he was happy.

"If we win the (NBA) title this year," he said, "it's gotta be the best we ever won."

Except for twinkles of gray atop his head, Julius Erving looked a wonderfully fit 35; he was angry.

"I expected more," he said. "I thought we were better than the '83 team that won it all . . . We have the two best offensive rebounders in the game (Moses Malone and Charles Barkley), all the pieces (to solve) this puzzle. We have ourselves to blame."

Sadly, Erving talked better at the end than he had played during the Eastern Conference finals. This once, he was not The Doctor, the sophisticated, soaring surgeon who slices defenses at will. This once, he was doc, the erratic geezer of a GP who seemed, well, generally perplexed.

"It wasn't vintage," Erving admitted of a series that lasted five games but may well have been decided after the first. "We (the 76ers and Celtics) were like two gladiators coming in with damaged goods. Almost a survival of the fittest . . . We could see they were inferior in some ways, and we could win without playing great.

"That was the hope, when we were down 0-3. They were not that great, so maybe we could make history."

They couldn't, for the reasons so many have failed at such moments against the Celtics -- especially in Boston Garden. They were just erratic enough, just unlucky enough, just stupid enough to limp away losers Wednesday night.

Dumb technical fouls, by Coach Billy Cunningham and rookie Barkley, cost the 76ers two points in a two-point loss. Bird might have missed the Charles River from a barge, but there he was, with about 10 seconds left, flipping some underhanded sleight of hand toward the basket in traffic.

"A scoop shot," Dennis Johnson called it. "One I particularly hate. The more I think about it, the more I hate it. One more like it and I'll tell him (to quit)."

He was smiling.

Don't the Celtics always have the first word and the last laugh?

Anyway, the ball clanked toward Erving, who was about to take flight upcourt when -- slam-bam -- he collided with Andrew Toney. They exchanged license numbers and Erving slipped Toney the ball. History, recent and ancient, all but demanded that Toney mishandle it; he did.

With five seconds or so remaining, everyone with Celtic blood figured Toney would call time. Cunningham said he was all but screaming it. Time, Andrew. Time!

Chuckling, Johnson said: "Andrew didn't hear it."

Sober, Bird added: "I stuck a hand in there. Didn't get much of the ball, but enough. Lucky for us, there was no call. Lucky for us, the ball didn't pop to someone else for a jump shot. It popped to me."

Doesn't it always?

If it's not Havlicek in another decade, it's Gerald Henderson in another year who pilfers a pass with glory on the line. In Boston Garden, a Toney could have both hands wrapped around a pea, a Bird could be wearing boxing gloves and the officials still would judge "no contact." Or so it seems.

"It was a little more dramatic in '81," Bird recalled, "because we had to come back from 3-1 against 'em. Yeah, '81 was a little bit sweeter. They were playin' better ball comin' into this series. We were playin' better ball at the end."

Fact is, Bird hinted, Cleveland gave the Celtics a tougher fight than the 76ers. Game 1 was pivotal. Philadelphia arrived in Boston in ideal position for the break it needed to establish advantages beyond the home court, but the Celtics staggered to victory.

"We were third or fourth best in the league instead of first or second. This is nothing you base a career decision on," Erving said of the 76ers' fall, two rungs from the top.

Although he praised Cunningham lavishly, Erving surely was speaking for himself. With the proper skill and enthusiasm around him, Erving should be able to maintain his dignity on the court through age 36. As he suggested: "If Barkley played 40 minutes a game this season, we'd have had the number one and number two rebounders in the league."

He was generous toward Cunningham.

Of being benched for nearly two of the final four minutes, Erving said: "We're a team. We've gotta support each other. I had to keep my head in the game. I could see certain things, but my role was to point them out and stay ready to make a contribution."

Of Cunningham's annual anguish over whether to return, he said: "Billy's a great coach. He knows us inside and out . . . that understanding should not be denied."

Erving also said, "We understand each other so well and yet we allow ourselves to be denied."

There's no denying the 76ers and Cunningham slipped badly in the Celtics series, especially in the games whose memories will linger longest: one, three and five. In the final game, the coach lost his poise at the end of the first half and the players lost theirs at the end of the second.

From afar, I sense that 76ers management and Cunningham may realize they have gone as far as they can together. Look for a new season to bring new direction from the bench.