In a game so typical of their play all season, the Washington Bullets rallied yesterday at Capital Centre to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers, 98-97, on an improbable jump shot by Darren Daye with two seconds remaining.
Washington's victory in its last regular season game, combined with the New Jersey Nets' 135-107 loss to the Boston Celtics, left the Bullets tied with the Nets for third place in the NBA's Atlantic Division with 39-43 records.
Because of their 4-2 edge in the season series against the Nets, Washington won the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and will open in Philadelphia Friday night against the 76ers, the team they preferred to play. If the Bullets had lost, they would have opened the playoffs against the second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
As has been the case all season, the Bullets went about things the hard way, squandering apparent good fortune, then furiously fighting to get back in the game before a crowd of 16,242.
The visitors played without four injured all-stars -- Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Bob McAdoo and Andrew Toney -- yet dominated in the opening half, leading by as many as 17 points. The main reason was Charles Barkley, who appeared well on his way to a quadruple double.
In the opening 24 minutes, the second-year forward had eight points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots. By game's end those numbers were 25, 18, nine and six. It still wasn't enough to lead his team to victory, mainly because Washington's Cliff Robinson scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds.
Twenty-two of Robinson's points came in the second half, but his biggest play came at the end, when he saved what seemed to be a game-ending turnover -- a pass from Gus Williams that seemed headed out of bounds -- sending it to Daye, who lofted in a soft, high-arcing shot in the lane for the game-winner.
"I was just trying to save it," said Robinson. "I saw that sixth spot dribbling out of bounds and I just wanted to get it back."
The play was reminiscent of a save by Robinson that led to a game-winning jump shot by Williams in a 110-108 victory March 8 over Boston. Robinson, who has averaged 20 points and almost 10 rebounds in the Bullets' last 59 games, has become the team's "go-to" player inside.
Like that earlier game against the Celtics, yesterday's entire end-of-game sequence was improbable. With 17 seconds remaining, the Bullets had to take a 20-second timeout when they couldn't inbound the ball. Then, Williams nearly lost it under pressure from Philadelphia guard Maurice Cheeks.
The plan was for Williams to dish it down low to Robinson, but he also was under pressure -- from Clemon Johnson. A bump sent Robinson one way and the ball another. Even after he swatted it back inbounds, Daye had to deal with a double-team from Barkley and Bobby Jones before getting off his shot, which bounced twice on the rim before nestling into the basket.
"I was fortunate enough to get the ball," said Daye, who scored 17 points in 21 minutes. "The shot felt good and it just went in."
Philadelphia still had time to get off another shot, but a three-point attempt by Barkley went awry, one of the few things he wasn't successful at yesterday. In leading his team back from an 87-79 deficit, for example, Barkley scored 10 of the 76ers' last 12 points and assisted on the remaining basket.
"I don't really think I played that well," Barkley said. When told the Bullets had expressed a preference of playing his team instead of the Bucks, Barkley said ominously, "They just think we're easier than the Bucks; they'll regret that decision."
During their lackluster first half, the Bullets concentrated on Barkley by double-teaming him with a guard. But Philadelphia defeated the strategy by rotating the ball to its backcourt men, either Sedale Threatt or Maurice Cheeks.
The two responded with 22 first-half points -- Threatt finished the game with 20, Cheeks with 19 -- and were a major factor in the 76ers' 57 percent shooting in the first half. At the same time, the Bullets were struggling at 33 percent -- not an unfamiliar mark for the team this season.
"We had a lousy first half," said Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery. "We need a full effort to win. We can't just show up and expect to win games -- we're not good enough."
The Bullets did finish the game with a 51-43 advantage on the backboards, although the 76ers scored 18 points off 13 offensive rebounds, another year-long worry for Washington. It could continue to be a problem if Philadelphia's Malone, out the final two weeks of the regular season with a broken bone under his right eye, returns for the playoff series.
"That's a big factor," said Loughery. "We've beaten them the last two times, but both of them they didn't have Moses . . . . In playoff time, I think he'll be there."
The coach wasn't as certain about his big man, center/forward Jeff Ruland. Although Ruland, recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, was activated for the postseason yesterday (with forward/center Ken Perry being cut to make room), Loughery called the chances of Ruland rejoining the team by Friday "a long shot."
The 76ers excluded Toney, who underwent surgery March 31 for a groin injury, from their 12-man playoff roster and also left out Kenny Green, a rookie forward obtained from the Bullets in a mid-season trade. Philadelphia retained Michael Young, who had signed a 10-day contract that expired Sunday.
*Celtics 135, Nets 107: A 46-point third quarter enabled Boston to rout visiting New Jersey and post the best single-season home record in NBA history.
The Celtics finished 40-1 at home, breaking the record of 33-1 set in 1949-50 by the Rochester Royals. They led the league at 67-15 and stretched to 31 games their NBA mark for consecutive home victories in a season.
Bird led Boston with 26 points.
*Cavaliers 104, Bulls 97: World B. Free's 31 points helped Cleveland close out with a win at home.
*Spurs 123, Trail Blazers 118: In San Antonio, the Spurs won behind 40 points from Mike Mitchell.
*Suns 118, Clippers 99: Larry Nance scored 21 points in Phoenix as the Suns beat Los Angeles in the season finale for both clubs.
*Mavericks 127, Lakers 104: Jay Vincent scored 19 points as visiting Dallas beat Los Angeles, which finished 62-20 to match last season's record