As usual the Bullets' crowd was rather late arriving. They finally showed up last night -- in Washington's 42nd home game. A drop-by; you know how it is in the Nation's Capital: so many social obligations it's impossible to commit to Landover before the playoffs. And when the fans finally did get there they seemed a bit confused as to which team they were supposed to root for, cheering Julius Erving far above anyone in a home uniform. "That's the way it's been since I've been here," Jeff Ruland said with long-suffering irony. "It's always road games at home for us." Not to worry. After this performance -- shooting 13 for 43 in the second half and squandering a 13-point lead -- the Bullets don't figure to be playing much more this season.

If ever there was a wide-open window of opportunity for the Bullets, this was it. But somewhow they found a way to break the glass, trip the alarm and alert the police department. Going into the series they had the powerful Philadelphia 76ers right where anyone would want them -- without 40 points worth of Moses Malone and Andrew Toney, and having to start rookies Terry Catledge and Greg Stokes. Then, after splitting the first two games in Philly, they had the 76ers right where anyone would want them last night: with 6:08 left in the third period they had them down, 67-54. And thanks to the determined defensive work of Charles Jones and Dan Roundfield, Mr. Charles Barkley, who had clobbered the Bullets for 53 points in the first two games of the series, had but six points. It seemed a game that destiny itself had selected from the gift department and wrapped for the Bullets. At that point in the game, as Manute Bol would later say, "You could have bet money on it."

And you'd have lost.

As the Bullets did.

"We were lazy in the second half," Bol said. "We gave this game away." He didn't need the stat sheet to know what had happened. "We didn't score hardly anything in the second half," Bol said. Just 33. Just 15 in the last period.

Gus Williams, who had been absolutely electrifying in the first half and first few minutes of the third quarter, couldn't get on the board. Nor could Jeff Malone. Hitting nine of his first 12 shots -- mostly stop and pops from out to 22 feet -- Gus had 21 of the Bullets' first 58 points, and the Bullets had a 58-48 lead. With 9:16 left in the third period Gus looked so sharp you wanted to shave with him. But he didn't make another field goal for more than 20 minutes, and when he finally did the Bullets were down by five with only 21 seconds to play. Malone, one of the league's true stone-cold shooters, had 13 of the Bullets' first 65 points, and the Bullets had a 65-54 lead with 7:08 left in the third period. But from then on Malone didn't score at all. Malone, who averaged 22.4 points per game this season, shot just two for seven in the second half. With Gus and Malone not giving them much of anything down the stretch, the Bullets needed production from their other big scorer, Cliff Robinson. But Robinson gave them only two points the entire second half, shooting one for six. Adding insult, he missed his four foul shots in the last quarter.

How dry did the Bullets go? Does "Sahara" ring a bell?

And so the Bullets, who stole the first game of this series on Dudley Bradley's heavenly heave, now have had two wrestled from them. What makes this loss harder to take is that the 76ers did it basically without Barkley, and for most of their 26-6 run through some 12 minutes of the third and fourth periods they did it without Maurice Cheeks, who had 21 of Philly's first 60 points and none thereafter. "We had control of the last two games, and we were not able to put them away," Kevin Loughery said after the game. The major damage was done by Sedale Threatt, a sixth-round draft choice from West Virginia Tech three years ago, and Julius Erving, a Doctor from another planet. Just when you thought the Doc was still in the league solely to pick up frequent flyer miles, he snaps back from a horrid eight-for-30 in the first two games and scores 22 points, swats six shots, and helps hound Malone into six-for-16. There's honor in a game like that for anyone, but for someone as spectacularly legendary as the Doc, there's absolution.

It would take something of a similarly religious nature for the Bullets to win this series now. The Last Hurrah for the injury-riddled, star-crossed Thunder and Lightning Bullets would appear to have come and gone last Friday in Philadelphia. If I have said this once, I have said it 1,000 times: Had this team been healthy these last two seasons it could have given anyone, even the Celtics, an honest 15-rounder. But there is a limited shelf life for a contending team, and sadly, it looks like if the Bullets don't trade up into the lottery this season, they may wind up there on their own next season.