Surely, the multi-ton statue of Rocky outside the Spectrum recoiled in disbelief. Somebody better make sure Dudley Bradley hasn't also pilfered the Liberty Bell.

"Is that a freak or not?" said Kevin Loughery.

Only as massive a one as anyone has seen in years. Only something as stupefying as the Bullets scoring the final 18 points of their playoff opener against the 76ers -- and winning on a three-point shot at the buzzer -- would send a geezer such as Gus Williams into little-boy fantasy.

In 10 years, Williams has seen most of the wonder that basketball can offer. What unfolded Friday night embedded itself deep in his memory -- and caused him to get high-schoolish.

When have you seen a 32-year-old NBA player leap out of his chair and hug the hero? For that matter, when have you seen one of the best free-throw shooters in the league miss three straight times to allow the absolute worst marksman in the NBA to knock in a 27-footer for victory?

Williams picked Bradley off the floor, about a foot or so from where his winning shot was launched and about a second after it caromed off the backboard and through the net.

Williams spun his buddy around and around while other Bullets jumped and waved their arms. Then Williams and Bradley fell and hugged some more.

"I'm not the only one who went for him, just the quickest," said Williams. "You see this sort of thing in the regular season now and then, but I can't remember anything quite like it in the playoffs."

Some sort of semi-bizarre ending probably should have been expected, given the nature of this first game. First off, the stars of both teams (Moses Malone and Jeff Ruland) were nowhere to be seen. And two other key players (Frank Johnson and Bob McAdoo) were here but also inactive.

Isn't this akin to starting a circus without the elephants? Welcome to the series between the lame (Washington) and the halt (Philadelphia).

Early on, Manute Bol lost his three front teeth. Somehow, the bridgework that holds them in place got shaken loose when Bol blocked a shot by the game's eventual goat, Julius Erving.

Play was not delayed, but officials spent several frustrating minutes scanning courtside. Looking like a grade-schooler waiting for 75 cents under his pillow, Bol endured -- and ended with nine blocked shots.

In all, three lane violations were called. A lane violation means that somebody leaps inside the painted area too soon on a foul shot. In the pros, this happens about as often as players take too many steps with the ball before shooting -- and is called as infrequently.

Three times referees Jack Madden and Ed Middleton got picky-picky, including the moment, with three seconds left, that allowed Erving to miss for a near-incredible third straight time.

"Hat trick," Bullets assistant Fred Carter said. "I called it. I said he'd miss 'em all."

Erving is a 79 percent free throw shooter. When Williams was reminded of Erving's sudden case of mortality, he said: "Hey, remember Larry Bird missing two in a row during a regular season game here -- and Doc hitting that three-pointer for the win?

"It happens."

This eerie event took place in a half-empty gym. The masses who follow the 76ers have a history of arriving late for the playoffs, say about Game 5 of the conference semifinals.

One in the audience could understand what happened to the 76ers down the stretch. Bullets owner Abe Pollin had seen close to this very thing the night before from his hockey team in Washington.

"Just like the Caps," he said, referring to a two-goal lead in the second period ending in an overtime loss to the Rangers. "You simply cannot play cautiously in sports."

Neither can you grab half as many rebounds as the opposition and win. Except on a night when fate decides to get ornery.

Yep, the 76ers had twice as many rebounds -- and lost. The Bullets missed about a third of their free throws -- and won. Also, Washington's glorious gunner happened to be captain of The Gang That Can't Shoot Straight.

The 76ers publicist, Harvey Pollack, ranked the lousiest field goal shooters with at least 100 tries during the regular season. With a 34.9 percentage (73 for 209), Bradley was the embarrassed leader.

So his winning effort is like your Aunt Harriet grabbing a rifle with a crooked barrel and plugging a backyard rodent square in the heart.

What set the stage for Bradley was the 76ers getting too cute for their own good.

"When they controlled the game," said Williams, "they grabbed all the rebounds and pushed the ball up court. Then they got passive.

"Our aggressive, trapping defense got just what we wanted. They started playing keepaway. Then we'd get the ball back and take advantage at the other end.

"We'd get two points here and two there. And turnovers. Finally, the Philadelphia lead got to the magic 10-point margin. At 10 points and under, emotion and psychology become factors."

"We got the first game," said Cliff Robinson, slightly stunned and slightly delirious with joy. "That's the toughest. We also want the second one here Sunday ."

Giddy, Pollin still was upset about the Bullets being just 18 for 29 at the line.

"We shoot 'em every day," Carter said.

That's how it went. Unmolested, the Bullets were awful at times, but in last-second confusion, with hands all around him, a fellow who should miss didn't.

Into a happy crowd, his news conference finished, Loughery bounded about a half-hour after Bradley's Beautiful Bullet. He caught the eye of another assistant, Bill Blair.

"Bill," he yelled. "Bill. I need a beer."