Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers missed a 15-foot shot in the final frantic seconds today, allowing the Milwaukee Bucks to win a seventh and deciding playoff game for the first time in their 17-year history.
The Bucks advanced to the NBA's Eastern Conference final with a 113-112 victory over the 76ers at the Mecca and will travel to Boston to face the Celtics Tuesday in the first game of another best-of-seven series.
"I'll worry about that tomorrow," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "Right now I'm gonna have a nice cold beer, relax a little bit and try and get this shirt dried off."
It was indeed a physically drenching and emotionally wrenching contest, one in which neither team could mount a double-digit lead.
Terry Cummings led the Bucks with 27 points, guard Craig Hodges added 24 and back-court mate Sidney Moncrief, playing in the finale despite torn tissue in his left heel, scored 23. Forward Paul Pressey had 15 assists to go with his 11 points.
They overshadowed an outstanding performance by Philadelphia reserve guard Sedale Threatt, who hit 12 of 16 shots from the field and led all scorers with a career-high 28 points. Point guard Maurice Cheeks had 22 points and forward Charles Barkley finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
The victory ended an 0-4 string of seventh-game futility by Milwaukee and gave the team its first postseason series triumph over Philadelphia after being eliminated from the playoffs by the 76ers in four of the past five years.
This series finally came down to what Philadelphia's Cheeks described as "a shot for them and a shot for us."
On an afternoon when the 76ers earned the No. 1 choice in the college player draft in the lottery at halftime, Philadelphia's good fortune ended in the final 29 seconds of the fourth quarter, much to the delight of many in the sellout crowd of 11,052.
On the first shot Cheeks spoke of, Hodges was given credit for what would be the game's final points when Barkley was whistled for goaltending with 29 seconds left. Still, with seven seconds left, the 76ers had a chance to win.
Taking the basketball out from beneath his own basket, Barkley inbounded it to Threatt, who was immediately double-teamed and forced to swing it over to Erving.
A little more than two minutes earlier, the 15-year veteran had shot an air ball on a jumper from just to the right side of the foul line. This time, standing directly opposite that spot on the left side of the foul line, he shot again. This shot missed, too, bounding straight up, then falling to the floor untouched. Barkley dove at the ball, but by the time he got there the final horn had sounded, and the 76ers were done.
"It was just an awkward feeling. I think everybody -- the fans, the refs, the players -- just paused to watch," Cummings said of Erving's shot. "Then, when the shot went off, everybody started scrambling around like chickens with their heads cut off. The first thing I did was look for Barkley to try and screen him out, but I only got a piece of him."
That was more than enough. To get to the loose ball, Barkley had to go through Milwaukee's Ricky Pierce, who was smothering it on the floor.
"I was already thinking about what we were going to do if Philadelphia scored ," Nelson said. "I was the most surprised person in the world when his shot didn't go in. Julius has had too many big ones against us over the years to expect that one to miss.
"It was an awfully good shot; I'd like to say that we played brilliant defense or something, but they just missed an open shot."
For Erving, who has made a career of soaring, twisting acrobatic moves to the hoop, the jump shot had been the most effective weapon throughout the 1986 playoffs.
"The shots didn't drop. What can I say?" Erving said after the game. "You're trying to make the shots. The first was an air ball, the second was a little strong."
That was one of the few things that didn't go right for the 76ers in the final seven minutes. Trailing, 102-94, Philadelphia went on a 12-2 run to take the lead. The spurt was keyed by the 76ers' pressure defense, which helped produce three turnovers in two minutes.
"I seriously thought we had the game won then," said Cheeks.
The fact that Barkley scored five of the 12 points seemed to be a sign that the momentum had swung toward the 76ers. Subjected to incessant pounding from a host of Milwaukee players during the series, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound second-year man appeared listless in the early going.
His first basket didn't come until the 8:54 mark of the third quarter; in the first half, Barkley, his team's acknowledged catalyst, didn't attempt a field goal.
Barkley, who also grew weary of an avalanche of publicity as the nearly two-week series ground on, limited his postgame comments to a single phrase: "It would have been a great series if we'd been playing horseshoes."
That was little consolation to Cheeks.
"From the fans' seats it must have been a great game, but for me it was very frustrating," he said. "No matter what obstacles we overcame -- who played and didn't play -- when you lose a series, you just feel empty."
Come the end of June, that won't be an exclusive feeling, said Erving. "Twenty-two teams will be disappointed by the time the winner is crowned," he said.
"It was a classic series with a classic finish," he added. "It's part of the beauty of the game to have a battle like this."
Today's game also marked the end of the distinguished career of Philadelphia forward Bobby Jones, who had previously announced his retirement after 10 years in the NBA and two in the old American Basketball Association. He scored three points today.