Despite a six-game home winning streak, with an average margin of victory of 24.5 points, the Washington Bullets coaching staff was concerned. Concerned about what would happen when their team played a good opponent in a close game, with the outcome hinging on each possession.
There might be some question whether the Philadelphia 76ers qualify as that kind of team, but last night the situation was made to order. After trailing by 10 points midway through the third quarter, by four early in overtime and by a point with less than a minute left, the Bullets came away with a 118-117 victory at Capital Centre before a snow-night crowd of 4,007.
Washington's Bernard King sent the game into overtime with an off-balance heave as the regulation buzzer sounded, then helped clinch the win with two free throws with 10 seconds remaining in the extra session. For the game he had 22 points and 13 rebounds. Center Moses Malone led the Bullets, who have a 16-21 record and their first four-game winning streak of the season, with 26 points and 13 rebounds.
The victory, Washington's third over the 76ers in five days, improved the Bullets' record under new Coach Wes Unseld to 8-2. It also moved the Bullets to within 1 1/2 games of the 76ers for second place in the Atlantic Division and to within one game of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the eighth, and last, Eastern Conference playoff berth.
After scoring 21 points in the opening half, brutish forward Charles Barkley nearly singlehandedly won the contest for Philadelphia, scoring his team's final eight points in the last 2:30 of regulation. He totaled 37 points and 15 rebounds.
"At the start of the game, I thought we didn't have it," Unseld said. "The 76ers were in a situation where it would have been easy for them to quit, but Charles and some of those guys came out smoking."
Last night, Philadelphia threw a couple of new wrinkles at Washington, using a half-court trap on defense and starting Andrew Toney at guard instead of Albert King. Using the two-time all-star in a series of one-on-one, isolation plays on offense, the switch was successful throughout the first half -- which ended with Philadelphia leading, 61-59 -- and into the third quarter. However, Toney reinjured his troublesome right foot in a fall when he was fouled with about eight minutes left in the period.
The 76ers were ahead by 10 points at the time. But when the quarter ended, they were clinging to an 83-81 lead provided by Albert King's three-point field goal at the buzzer.
That was something of a prelude for the last-second fireworks provided by his brother in the closing moments of regulation. The Bullets trailed, 95-94, when Bernard King re-entered the game with 5:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. He made two free throws with 2:51 left to put Washington ahead, 99-97, and then added a tipin 42 seconds later to make it 101-99.
Barkley tied the score with a layup and then gave the 76ers a two-point advantage with a pair of free throws after he made an offensive rebound and was fouled. King came back with a 16-foot jumper for the Bullets, but the irrepressible Barkley scored off another offensive rebound to give the 76ers a 105-103 lead with 25 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Bullets tried to work the ball around the perimeter, but David Wingate blocked Jeff Malone's shot out of bounds with 10 seconds left to play.
The Bullets were then forced to scurry about even after a 20-second timeout. John Williams took a driving shot that was blocked by Philadelphia's Mike Gminski. Moses Malone batted the ball toward the basket twice. The ball somehow wound up in Bernard King's hands. In one motion, he grabbed it, turned and fired from just outside the lane.
"That was a shot, it wasn't a prayer that was answered," said King. "I got the ball and thought about trying to bank it or shoot it straight on. I decided to shoot it straight. But the big play was Moses keeping the ball alive twice; if he doesn't do that, we don't have a chance to get the shot off."
The overtime was no less thrilling. Washington fell behind early on baskets by Wingate and Gminski, but King's jumper and Jeff Malone's runner from the lane tied the score. With 36 seconds to play, 76ers reserve guard Gerald Henderson made a three-point basket to put Philadelphia ahead, 114-113.
Henderson said he took what, given the situation, had to be considered an unorthodox shot "because it was in the script."
On the Bullets' subsequent possession, Jeff Malone attempted a shot that was blocked by Barkley. However, Moses Malone recovered the ball in the lane and dunked to put Washington ahead.
After a timeout, Philadelphia went to Barkley. He drove the lane and passed to Gminski, who missed from close range once and then again after rebounding the ball. The second miss was corralled by King, who made two free throws.
Moses Malone added another free throw with two seconds to play, enabling Washington to withstand Henderson's three-point basket at the buzzer.