Completing one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history, Dudley Bradley sank a three-point field goal at the buzzer to give the Washington Bullets a 95-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their best-of-five opening-round NBA playoff series tonight at the Spectrum.
The shot capped a miraculous comeback in which the Bullets scored the final 18 points of the game, rallying from a 94-77 deficit with 3:49 to play. In 1973, the New York Knicks overcame a 16-point deficit at the end of three quarters to defeat the Boston Celtics, 117-110, but the league had no record of a team coming from behind by so much so late in a game.
And perhaps with good reason. How often, after all, does one see Julius Erving -- a 79 percent free throw shooter on the season -- miss not one, not two, but three consecutive shots from the line? That happened with three seconds to play, setting up Bradley's heroics.
Ironically, it was the second miss that might have sealed Philadelphia's fate. Washington's Manute Bol grabbed the rebound but referee Jack Madden called the rookie center -- who blocked nine shots tonight -- for a lane violation, giving Erving his third attempt.
"They stepped in first and I just followed them," said Bol. "I'm glad he missed anyway because if he didn't, I feel bad. But he did, so I don't feel so bad now."
When Bol also grabbed the third miss, the game clock lost a second. Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery immediately complained, and after a short consultation the clock was reset at three seconds. After a timeout, the Bullets inbounded the ball at mid-court, and shortly thereafter near-chaos erupted.
The play designed by Loughery called for Dan Roundfield to pass the ball to Jeff Malone, who scored a team-high 21 points. However, the all-star guard was hounded by Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks, leaving Roundfield no alternative but to pass to Bradley, who finished the regular season with the worst field goal percentage -- 34.9 -- of any NBA player taking a minimum of 100 shots.
Moving from the center of the floor, Bradley almost lost control of the ball, then had to avoid an attempted steal by Erving. Spinning away from the defender and lunging toward the basket almost simultaneously, the reserve guard released the shot from about 27 feet, and it hit the backboard and went through the hoop.
"It felt good, really good. I didn't really have to look at the shot because of how it felt," said Bradley. "Sometimes the ball feels good, but it doesn't go in. The guys told me that if I was open to shoot it. It just so happened that I was."
For the opening 40 minutes of the game, Washington had executed an almost flawless game plan. Philadelphia power forward Charles Barkley would finish the night with 26 points and 22 rebounds, yet he had been kept in check for the majority of the game by Charles Jones and Roundfield.
Combined with Bol's defense and impressive outside shooting by Malone and Gus Williams, the Bullets -- ahead for much of the game -- never trailed by more than six points until 7:56 remained.
Sedale Threatt's jumper with 8:15 left had given Philadelphia an 80-74 lead, and Barkley's fast-break basket 19 seconds later gave the 76ers their first eight-point advantage, as the bottom began to fall out for the visitors.
By the time the 76ers' 16-3 spurt had ended, they enjoyed a comfortable 94-77 lead with 3:49 to play. Many of those points came as a result of offensive rebounds by Philadelphia, which controlled the boards by a 58-29 margin.
"Our biggest concern coming in tonight was rebounding and it turned out to be our biggest problem," said Loughery. "We're playing a team without their dominant center Moses Malone, who missed the game because of a broken bone beneath his right eye and we still got killed on the boards."
The Bullets also didn't help their cause with a near-pitiful performance at the free-throw line, converting just 18 of 29 attempts.
As it was, it was the 76ers who seemed to be headed for a comfortable decision, then . . . poof. Roundfield (20 points, seven rebounds) scored on a three-point play with 3:35 left, then Cliff Robinson stole the ball and Roundfield hit on a jumper from the right side. On the Bullets' next possession, Roundfield scored once again with 2:47 to play, cutting the 76ers' lead to 94-84.
At that point the smallish crowd of 9,148 began to stir, squirming in their seats. Thirty-three seconds after Roundfield's shot, Bradley missed one of two free throws, but Barkley missed a pair. At 1:38, Robinson (18 points, eight rebounds) scored on a stuff shot, and 27 seconds after that, Bradley hit a three-point shot from the left corner to make the score 94-90.
With 35 seconds to play, Roundfield scored on one of the Bullets' six offensive rebounds (the 76ers had 24), setting up the last-second drama.
"I never thought it would get to that point," said Cheeks. "We started traveling, getting turnovers. . . . Everything just started going wrong."
Added Philadelphia Coach Matty Guokas: "I think we got caught up in being too tentative. We couldn't make a free throw. And we couldn't get a rebound. . . . This puts us in a deep, dark hole."
Besides the mental lift that Washington acquired with the victory, one has to wonder about the 76ers' ability to bounce back, not only from tonight's loss but also from the Bullets' 98-97 victory at Capital Centre last Sunday in the regular-season finale.
"I guess they thought it was over," said the Bullets' Malone. "But you can't give up in the playoffs -- anything can happen. I guess tonight showed it."