Philadelphia's last chance to win -- or "our final miracle," as Julius Erving called it -- typified the crucial plays for the 76ers last night in the Washington Bullets' 116-111 playoff victory at Capital Centre.
Trailing by three points with eight seconds remaining, the 76ers were fortunate enough to have the Bullets' Cliff Robinson miss two free throws.
The second one bounded right into the hands of Erving.
But before he could establish control, Robinson had stepped up and taken it out of Erving's hands and scored the game-clinching dunk. If Erving had controlled the ball, Philadelphia would have a chance at a game-tying three-point shot.
Moments earlier, a loose ball bounced along the baseline, where Dudley Bradley scooped it up before hitting a free throw that put the Bullets ahead, 114-111.
Just before that, Bradley threw a loose ball out of bounds off Philadelphia's Charles Barkley that enabled the Bullets to maintain possession. And one possession before that, the Bullets' Jeff Ruland picked up a loose ball and scored a short layup.
Luck? "I don't think so," 76ers guard Maurice Cheeks said afterward. "I think the Bullets worked hard for those plays, Bradley's play, Ruland's play. Those were the big plays."
Erving basically agreed when he said: "I think they wanted the game a little more than we did. Ruland stumbled into the ball and wound up getting that layup. But he was in the middle of a lot of things. They played hard."
That left 76ers Coach Matt Guokas talking about what might have been. "We had our chances at the end," he said. "There were a couple of tough plays we didn't come up with, and they did. That won the game.
"You have to come up with those kind of rebounds, those kinds of loose balls, like Jeff Ruland did tonight. If you don't come up with them, you come up short."
One 76er who was not taking the loss lightly was Barkley, who grumbled about how poorly he played, despite evidence to the contrary: 22 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
Barkley wasn't happy with the three-pointer he missed -- he missed all four three-point shots he took last night -- with 10 seconds left.
The 76ers had called time six seconds earlier. And although Barkley has taken twice as many three-point shots as any of his other teammates, Philadelphia had other options.
"There was an option for a lot of us," said Cheeks, whose splendid 30-point performance suggested that he might be the first option.
Several of the 76ers thought the team played well. And their 50 percent field goal shooting supported that belief.
But Erving noticed some other numbers that he hopes the team will try to change by Sunday, when the deciding game is played at the Spectrum.
The number Erving concentrated on was three, which is the number of players Philadelphia relied on last night. Of the 76ers' 111 points, 77 were scored by Cheeks (30), Erving (25) and Barkley (22).
Clemon Johnson and Bobby Jones, who play the crunch minutes, combined for only 13 points in 53 minutes.
Erving didn't think Johnson and Jones took enough shots to make their Bullets counterparts play honest defense. "The more people we get involved, the more pressure we can put on their defense," Erving said.
"The Bullets play basically a soft defense that relies a lot on [Manute] Bol's shot blocking. Ruland tightens it up somewhat. But it's soft. We have to exploit that area . . . "
Though it may have sounded strange after a defeat, Cheeks offered a reasonable thought when he said: "I don't think a lot went wrong for us tonight."
A lot more could go right on Sunday if the 76ers have the services of Moses Malone, whom Guokas said may practice Saturday.
Barkley, who has carried the inside load in Malone's absence, didn't want to hear about maybes. "We better think about who's here right now," he said.