Even forgetting about the 18 consecutive points they scored in the final 3:49, the Washington Bullets' 95-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Friday's playoff opener strains the boundaries of credibility.
How can a team give up 20 points on 24 offensive rebounds, be pounded on the boards by a 58-29 margin and shoot 49 percent from the field with its two leading scorers making even less than that -- and win the game?
For the Bullets, the most important ingredient was preparation. That, combined with more than a dollop of luck and some questionable strategy on the part of the 76ers, has the Bullets heading into today's game at the Spectrum knowing that in the last two years, the team that has won the first game in a first-round series has gone on to win the series 14 of 16 times.
And, of course, Dudley Bradley's three-point shot from 27 feet as time expired didn't hurt.
Going into the game, Coach Kevin Loughery had said that, to have a chance, the Bullets had to outrebound the 76ers and get early scoring help from guard Jeff Malone and forward Cliff Robinson. At halftime, however, the Sixers had a 30-12 rebounding edge.
Things weren't any better offensively. Robinson didn't score his first field goal until 3:40 remained in the first half. Malone, who shot only six for 20 against the 76ers in the regular season finale, hit three of six shots in the opening quarter but only one of six for the remainder of the half. After one shot bounded away from the rim, Malone threw up his hands in disgust.
"I've been missing a lot of shots, simple ones that I usually make," he said. "I was getting frustrated, but Gus Williams told me not to worry about it."
Robinson wasn't concerned about his slow start, either.
"I knew that I was going to play most of the game and that things would come my way," he said. "It's about winning. Gus was going good at the start, and everyone was into things. There was no hurry."
Indeed, despite the problems, the Bullets trailed by only 45-44 at halftime, and until a 14-3 Philadelphia run in the fourth quarter, they stayed within six points.
That was mainly the result of outstanding defense. "Looking at the films, there was no doubt that it was our defense that kept us in the game the whole way," said Loughery. "I think we only made two mistakes the entire game."
That's where the preparation came in. After a week of watching films, the Bullets were prepared for most nuances in the 76ers' offense. They knew to try to take away the right-hand drive of Julius Erving and to prevent Charles Barkley from penetrating into the middle -- and they did.
Barkley, Philadelphia's imposing power forward, scored 26 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and passed for nine assists, but his effort was almost workmanlike. There were only one length-of-the-court drive and thunder-slam and only one rampage through the lane and the opposition for a dunk -- plays that usually serve to ignite the 76ers and demoralize their foes.
Perhaps the biggest play for the Bullets came with Philadelphia leading by 91-77 with 4:53 remaining in the game, when Barkley exited with his fifth personal foul. When he returned with 2:14 remaining, the Bullets were eight points into their game-winning spree.
"If they had scored just one basket during that run -- just one at any time -- it would have broken our momentum," said the Bullets' injured guard, Frank Johnson. "But they never did. They were never able to do it."
Other than Barkley, the most likely game-breaker for the 76ers was guard Sedale Threatt, who had connected on five of six shots in the first 6:30 of the period, all but one from long range. However, Philadelphia Coach Matty Guokas inserted Erving, who had sat out the entire fourth period, with 3:13 left, then took out Threatt when Barkley returned.
"I don't know if I would have done that," said one Washington player in the locker room after the game. "Threatt was killing us."
Erving missed three straight foul shots with three seconds remaining, setting the stage for Bradley's game-winner. But Erving's misses may not have hurt the 76ers as much as what transpired between his return to the game and his trip to the line.
In that time, Erving officially lost the ball once on a turnover but was hounded unmercifully by Bradley and the Bullets' trapping defense, a desperation move made more effective by Philadelphia's decision to try to run out the clock with long, perimeter passes.
"I was delighted that we got as much out of the trap as we did," said Loughery. "Surprised, too. I think we may go to it even earlier."
Loughery knows that on Sunday, the Bullets also will have to improve their rebounding. To that end, the team is placing a slight wrinkle in the defensive rotation, leaving Robinson underneath the basket instead of flying out to the wing to contest jumpers by the Philadelphia guards.
"It's close to the same thing we did last Sunday at Capital Centre," said assistant coach Bill Blair. "We're going to give up some jump shots that way, but hopefully it will stop us from getting destroyed on the boards."