When Jeff Malone swished a tough 17-footer in the third quarter Sunday, Charles Barkley plucked the ball out of the net and calmly went about his business.

Great players are supposed to make the difficult seem routine.

When Manute Bol hit a 12-foot base line hook shot that gave Washington a two-point lead with 3:20 left in the game, Barkley's massive shoulders sagged. Were the Bullets getting supernatural for the second straight game?

"I said to myself," Barkley recalled, " 'Okay, we're gonna lose.' "

Then he had another talk with himself. Before this first-round playoff series began, Barkley had been the Titan of Talk. Once Sunday, he was the Whale of Whine.

He was ineffective early. However, from what in a horse race would be the 16th pole, Barkley was a brilliant blob for the 76ers once again, the Round Mound of Rebound. How much basketball space does he occupy? In the paint, he is the paint.

"They frustrated me a lot," Barkley said, saluting double-teaming that had Gus Williams scurrying to keep Dan Roundfield company on outside isolations. That was one of the reasons Barkley had a team-high six assists.

Although not a center, Barkley is the 76ers' center of gravity. With Moses Malone injured and Julius Erving ineffective in the first game and inactive the final six minutes Sunday, Barkley has carried his team.

Philadelphia finally got Barkley the ball Sunday, although in an unusual way. The 76ers threw it toward the basket. Shoot and chase, the tactic is called. If the shot goes in, fine. If it rattles off the rim, don't worry.

Barkley will control the rebound, somehow, and wrestle the ball back in.

With the Sixers down by six with just under five minutes left, Barkley kept a miss by Erving alive, then grabbed the ball and sank the follow-up.

Twice more in the last few minutes, Barkley repeated the routine. Only the names of the wild Sixers shooters changed. He had 10 offensive and 10 defensive rebounds.

Still sighing with relief that his guys had escaped with victory and a split, Barkley was asked about his pre-series confidence. Had he been too bold in suggesting a Sixers sweep?

"I don't make bold statements," he said.

Oh?

"Anyone who knows anything about basketball knows we should be up two-zip," he continued. Heating up, he added: "We choked in Game 1 [allowing the Bullets to score the game's final 18 points and win by one].

"The bottom line is that we dug ourselves a big hole. They're in the driver's seat, but I still think we'll win. If we lose, it's our fault, because we blew Game 1."

The Barkley charm includes his being so outgoing and enthusiastic at work. At one point Friday, he had more high fives than the Bullets had rebounds.

He also grades officials. Unlike a fellow with a similar build, Wes Unseld, Barkley concedes that the blind men do stumble onto correct calls now and then.

Yes, Barkley will admit, patting the ref, I really did sort of rearrange that poor fellow's rib cage. I'll try to be more subtle next time.

Mostly, Barkley barks.

Midway through the first half Sunday, Barkley and Roundfield collided. Earl Strom whistled Barkley for the foul.

"That's no foul," Barkley pleaded.

Strom stood by his decision.

Barkley then bounced the ball 30 feet in disgust, which reminded a Washingtonian of the time a similar stunt led to a memorable piece of wit.

"If that ball comes down," the official said to the coach who had thrown it, George Washington's Bill Reinhart, "it's a technical."

"If that ball doesn't come down," replied Reinhart, wise to the laws of nature, "we're all in trouble."

Barkley earned a less-creative T.

"I wasn't scared," he said of the Sixers trailing Washington by six points with six minutes left Sunday, "but I was worried.

"We haven't played a good game in the series yet. But when you aren't playing well and still are only four or six down, all you need is a spurt."

Which Barkley provided.

The Bullet who fascinates Barkley is Manute Bol, who blocked him at least twice Sunday in addition to flicking in that important hook late in the game.

"We want him to take that shot," Barkley said. "Except he's hit the last five or six of those he's tried against us. He got two last Sunday in Washington, and one Friday."

Late in the second quarter Sunday, Barkley was matched low against the 7-foot-7 Bol. He tried to keep the rim between the ball and Bol, but scooped the shot too hard.

But before Bol could reach the miss, Barkley was wiping it off the glass. He banked it home.

The Bullets have been terrible on the boards these two games. But they shot so well a good deal of Sunday that they could smile and say to themselves: "Who needs rebounders?"

Everybody who wants to win regularly, it developed. And the series is going to slide the Sixers' way if Barkley continues to get as many rebounds himself as Cliff Robinson, Bol, Charles Jones and Tom McMillen combined.

"You go to war with what you've got," said Barkley, alluding to the missing Malone and Erving, who was benched in the stretch Sunday. "Terry [Catledge] is our Moses now."

Barkley is their man.