Why the Bullets cling to basketball life, Part I: With slightly less than 10 minutes left last night at Capital Centre, Jeff Malone put up one of his few long-distance shots that failed to swish.

Normally, the ball would clang off the rim and gravitate toward a 76er. Normally, Charles Barkley would muscle whichever Bullet happened to be nearby and snatch the rebound. Normally, the 76ers would convert that rebound into a couple of points at the other end of the court.

Last night, the Bullets were wonderfully out of whack. Instead of surrendering the ball on that Malone miss, they fought as if their last breath was on the line.

Which it pretty much was.

Cliff Robinson controlled the rebound. That was the first surprise. The second was that he also missed. The third was that Manute Bol chose that moment to dwarf everybody and tip the ball in with his left hand.

That glorious bit of inside work opened a seven-point lead, 97-90. And the scene got repeated just enough for Washington to be able to motor up I-95 for Sunday's deciding game of this best-of-five series.

Why the 76ers almost won, Part I: In the final several minutes, Julius Erving sank three important baskets. His basketball age is about 73, and the 76ers are structured more around Barkley and Maurice Cheeks this series.

With 25 points and one vintage reverse bank shot off the glass that was nullified by a foul, Doc was the brilliant intern once more.

With the essential whys out of the way, it's time to reintroduce the only life-support system that also talks. Jeff Ruland returned for the first time in what seemed several years instead of several weeks; his presence was as significant as his points.

"Just boxing out Barkley was big," Robinson said.

Indeed, Barkley had grabbed 25 offensive rebounds in the first three games; last night he got just two. And those who felt their cars rattle just a bit on the Beltway should know it probably was the after-shock of Barkley and Ruland colliding.

This was a very good game, full of terrific teamwork and exceptional individual moves. Have you seen a 7-7 guy throw a 30-foot behind-the-back pass before?

That was the most stunning of Bol's fine feats. With nobody to intrude on any old outlet pass he chose to throw, he whipped it -- Magic-like -- behind his back to midcourt.

Also, the fellow rumored to be ineffective farther than 7 feet 7 inches from the basket drifted onto Malone's turf once and buried a one-handed set.

That was the dazzle. Bol also had 12 rebounds, including seven at the offensive end. Anytime Bol has four times as many rebounds as blocked shots is cause for warm thoughts about his potential.

Still, the most dynamic, out-of-your-seat play of the game came from Barkley. So special, in fact, that it led to five points.

As you may know, Barkley resembles the Lincoln Memorial in sneakers. Whenever he lifts himself more than a few inches off the court, it is seen as close to miraculous.

Late in the first quarter, Barkley leaped across the sideline near the Washington basket and kept the ball alive.

Even Cheeks, Gus Williams or any of the other mobile little players would have been pleased just to bat the ball to a teammate close by.

In the air, his momentum carrying him the other way, Barkley somehow managed a three-quarter-court baseball pass to the in-flight Erving.

On the breakaway, Erving sank the layup. He was fouled, and when that happens on breakaways, teams retain possession after the free throw. A Barkley jumper soon followed.

Nobody wins without a decent amount of luck -- and good fortune came to the Bullets near the end of each half.

When Clemon Johnson clutched a Bullets miss with less than five seconds left in the first half, the worst the 76ers should have left the court with was a 58-58 tie.

Instead of doing nothing with the ball, Johnson passed it -- to the very surprised and very open Jeff Malone for a layup.

With eight seconds left in the game, about the only way the Bullets could lose was for Robinson to miss both free throws. He proceeded to do exactly that.

Good thing for the Bullets, for when Erving mishandled the rebound, Robinson was there to pilfer the ball and stuff it home.

End of game.

This led to more badgering by players happy to needle each other. In Philadelphia Sunday, Barkley told former 76er Leon Wood that he would be seeing his mother Friday.

Barkley was saying the 76ers would win last night.

Last night, Wood said: "Tell Charles I won't be seeing my mom until . . . maybe June. Tell Charles the flight was canceled.

"Tell Charles he can make his reservations for Alabama."

Wood had been smiling. But memory and respect sobered him and he added: "He's my man, though."