Taking control of the game with a 33-10 run beginning late in the third quarter, the Philadelphia 76ers moved within one game of eliminating the Washington Bullets from the NBA playoffs last night with a 91-86 victory before 17,131 at Capital Centre.
The 76ers lead the best-of-five first-round series, 2-1. Game 4 will be played at the Centre on Thursday.
After shooting 54 percent from the field in the opening half, the Bullets moved out to a 67-54 advantage on a mighty slam dunk by Charles Jones on an offensive rebound with 6:08 to play in the third period.
From that point, however, things soured for Washington. The Bullets converted only seven of 21 shots overall in the quarter, and their slump comtinued into the fourth, the team missing seven of its first eight field goal attempts. In the second half of play, Washington was 13 of 43 from the floor.
Meanwhile, the 76ers were able to get their running game into gear, courtesy of a strangling defense. Between the 4:38 mark of the third quarter and 5:28 of the fourth, Philadelphia scored 14 of its 26 points as a result of turnovers. Many of the rest were opportunities presented by Washington's inaccurate shooting.
"I think it was obvious what the difference in the game was our inability to score after having a 13-point lead," said Bullets Coach Kevin Loughery. "We just couldn't hit anything. We missed a lot of foul shots; just couldn't put the ball in the basket."
The team's malaise tainted what had begun as an outstanding night for Washington guard Gus Williams, who led all scorers with 28 points. Unfortunately for the Bullets, only five of Williams' points came in the fourth quarter, and all with under five minutes to play.
Even more striking was Philadelphia's defensive work on Jeff Malone, Washington's all-star guard. Malone went six of 16 from the field for the game and didn't score in the final 19 minutes.
The lack of back-court scoring was even more damaging to the Bullets than normal because forward Cliff Robinson spent the majority of the game in foul trouble, scoring only 11 points and grabbing two rebounds before fouling out with 56 seconds remaining.
"It's hard to get any kind of timing when you're spending so much time on the bench," said Robinson. "Then, whenever I took a deep breath, I got a foul called on me."
Philadelphia was led by Julius Erving's 22 points, one more than guard Maurice Cheeks. Reserve Sedale Threatt had 16. Charles Barkley, the dominant force in Games 1 and 2, was held in relative check, scoring 13 points to accompany 14 rebounds. However, his lessened effort didn't stop him from proclaiming what he saw as Washington's imminent demise.
"Doc Erving came through, Bobby Jones came through, Sedale came through and now they're through," he said, shrugging toward the Washington locker room.
Barkley's prediction didn't take Washington center/forward Jeff Ruland into account, however. Ruland missed the opening three games of the series while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee earlier in the month. After last night's game, however, the Bullets' captain said he may be able to return to action by Thursday.
"I'm very close to playing again . Wednesday will determine what happens," Ruland said. "I did some running today, and tomorrow I'll do some jumping. If my doctor Kenneth DeHaven gives his okay, then I could be out there on Thursday."
Should the 6-foot-11, 275-pounder be able to return, it would be welcome news for the Bullets, who once again found themselves on the short end of the stick in rebounding. Before the game had even begun, the Capital Centre counters who keep track of rebounds had Philadelphia ahead, 1-0. Even with the phantom rebound taken away, the 76ers ended up with a 54-35 edge.
"I don't know how they do it, but they continue to do it," said Dan Roundfield, who tied Manute Bol with a team-high 10 rebounds. "If you don't outrebound a team, you have to shoot well. If we had continued to make the shots we were hitting in the first half, we would have blown them out."
Added Malone, "I don't know what happened. Something just hit us. They played good defense but we had some real easy shots and just couldn't put 'em down. I know I had a couple."
Yet, because of its once-sizable margin, Washington found itself still in the contest even after Philadelphia's streak. With the Bullets down, 89-79, with less than two minutes remaining, Williams scored on a free throw, Bol got an offensive-rebound basket and Williams came back with another quick four to make the score 89-86 with 17 seconds left.
Many in attendance began to wonder if a miracle on a par with last Friday's 95-94 Game 1 victory was in the offing. The parallels became even more dramatic when Erving was fouled with 11 seconds remaining. It was Erving who missed three consecutive shots from the line in the opening game, giving Washington the opportunity to set up Dudley Bradley's game-winning, three-point field goal.
Last night, however, there would be no repeat for the Bullets; Erving sank both his free throws.
Now, there is do-or-die pressure for Washington. "It doesn't matter what area of play you're talking about, we just have to give it our all," said Robinson.
"This is the second game we've had control of and weren't able to put away," said Loughery. "Shooting has been our Achilles' heel all season. Hopefully, we'll be able to do a little better on Thursday. If we don't, it's our own fault."