The Philadelphia 76ers forced a seventh and deciding game in their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks with a 126-108 victory tonight at the Spectrum.

Game 7 will be played Sunday afternoon at the Mecca in Milwaukee, with the winner advancing to the Eastern Conference final to meet the Boston Celtics.

Forwards Charles Barkley and Bobby Jones led the 76ers with 23 points each, Barkley also grabbing 21 rebounds.

Philadelphia guard Maurice Cheeks added a triple double of 16 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, and guard Julius Erving had 18 points.

The Bucks were led by Craig Hodges with 22 points, including five three-point goals. Terry Cummings added 16 points for Milwaukee.

The Bucks, who had taken a 3-2 edge in the series with a 113-108 victory in Milwaukee Wednesday night, never seriously contended in tonight's game following a 19-9 spurt by Philadelphia in the final 5:30 of the first half.

When the 76ers opened the third quarter with a 20-10 run in the first 6:30 of the period, Bucks Coach Don Nelson took perhaps the biggest gamble in a series that has been full of calculated risks. Already playing without guard Sidney Moncrief -- sitting out the game because of a torn tissue in his left heel -- Nelson effectively cleared his bench.

Cummings, the Bucks' leading scorer against the 76ers in the series, didn't play in the final 19 minutes. Forward/guard Paul Pressey sat out the entire fourth quarter.

Whether the extra rest will be a factor when the teams meet in Game 7 remains to be seen.

It apparently didn't matter to Philadelphia Coach Matt Guokas, who left four of his starters -- Cheeks, Barkley, Jones and Erving -- in the game until the closing minutes.

"If they could have cut the score down to 10 or 12 points he probably would have had the troops in quickly," said Guokas. "I tried to buy time to rest everyone with the exception of Maurice -- I need him in the game to take care of the ball -- but I need Charles in there to rebound, I need Doc in there, too."

According to Nelson, his maneuvering "only accomplished one thing: We kept enough pressure on defensively to keep their top players in the game.

"We wanted to wear them down. Will it have an effect? No, they were supposed to be tired tonight."

Actually, the 76ers played fatigued for most of the game, fattening up their stats during the extended garbage time. Barkley, a 72 percent shooter from the line entering the game, missed seven of 18 free throws in his 40 minutes.

More than a little feisty throughout the 76ers' 11 previous playoff games, tonight the power forward seemed too weary to fight after constantly being hammered by Milwaukee.

"I think we're on the verge of seeing a rule change," said Guokas. "They're not even trying to play the ball. They just grab Charles to make him shoot free throws. Because it's within the rules, I guess that's the way to play now."

Guokas added his own little twist before the start of tonight's game, replacing rookie center Terry Catledge in the starting lineup with Clemon Johnson, who scored 10 points with six rebounds. Said the coach: "I've been concerned with our starts for the whole series. Tonight, for the first time we came out and won the first quarter."

Their convincing performances in the second, third and fourth periods could be attributed directly to Cheeks and Jones. The latter was also a relative newcomer to the starting lineup, having cracked it in Game 3.

Even more importantly, had the Bucks won tonight, chances are it would have been the 11-year veteran's final game. Jones has strongly hinted at retirement all season.

Perhaps that was why the crowd of 15,287 constantly showed their appreciation of Jones, 34. During one third-quarter trip to the free-throw line, the ovation he received was so loud that he badly missed his first foul shot.

"It was a great game and I was thrilled by the crowd reaction to me," he said. "It was great for me. We're going to get up on them early Sunday. If we don't get our running game going and they do we'll be in trouble."

That certainly wasn't the case tonight. With Philadelphia leading, 35-28, after the first quarter, the two teams were engaged in what appeared to be a heavyweight title fight for most of the second period. The Bucks went on a 10-2 run; the 76ers responded with six straight points.

The Bucks then scored seven straight. The 76ers once again came back with a flurry. First they scored six consecutive points to force Milwaukee to spend a timeout. Then, after the break, they outscored the Bucks by 13-9 over the remainder of the half.

"They worked hard and built a small lead, then we took some bad shots and gave them a chance to take a real big lead," said Pressey. "We have to come out on Sunday and be real aggressive and give a better effort than we did tonight or the same thing will happen."

No chance, said Cummings.

"We're playing very well, despite what happened tonight," he said. "Our confidence isn't shaken -- we know the 76ers are tired."

Just how tired will be determined Sunday.