The roar of the Spectrum crowd when the ball went cleanly through the hoop was worthy of the simultaneous winning of 10 seventh games, and why not? Good fans spend hundreds of dollars annually on season tickets just hoping to be a part of a human drama such as this.
It doesn't come any better. With four seconds left in yesterday's game, the 76ers were down by two (94-92), and Larry Bird, the league's best foul shooter, was on the line for two. He missed both. In basketball terms, this was clearly a miracle.
With three seconds left, Kevin McHale tied up a driving Charles Barkley for a jump ball at the foul line. And with no seconds left, Julius Erving picked up the ensuing tap, (which was basically controlled by Barkley) and threw in a half-set, half-jumper off his right ear with Danny Ainge about 10 inches from his face on the left wing to provide the deserving 76ers with a thrilling 95-94 victory over the Celtics in a game that had everything, both good and bad, an NBA contest has to offer.
"Barkley got more of the ball than I did, but it went where we wanted it to go," shrugged McHale. "That's exactly the shot we would want them to take."
It's almost as if the Celtics are incapable of losing in anything resembling a conventional manner. They have lost three times in the last 24 games and in each case they have given away a seemingly safe second-half lead and lost to a three-pointer. This time, their largesse involved the ceding of an 11-point (90-79) lead with 4:37 to play, not to mention a six-point (94-88) lead with 1:17 remaining. Let us waste no sympathy on a team that does that.
Erving's final heroics were fitting, for it was the Doctor who had brought the Sixers back from that minus-11 state. A Jerry Sichting jumper had just provided the visitors with that lead when Erving, a very ineffective performer most of the afternoon, stuck in a follow-up reverse layup. On the next Boston possession, Bird demonstrated how concerned he was by throwing up a sloppy runner rather than a decent shot. Erving came down and swished a three-pointer from the right wing that cut the lead to six, 90-84.
The Doc was fired up then, and his next move was to intercept a Bird entry pass and take it all the way. The momentum was clearly Philadelphia's.
Two baskets by Dennis Johnson (a fast-break layup on a Bird feed to make it 92-86 and a side-court jumper to create the 94-88 score with 1:17 left) appeared to have settled things, but the 76ers, whose effort throughout the afternoon was exemplary, were only beginning to fight.
Rookie Terry Catledge powered in a low-post three-point play, and when Bird tried to salvage a broken play with a spectacular pass underneath to what he thought was an unguarded McHale, Clemons Johnson stole the ball. Maurice Cheeks subsequently made one of two foul shots at the 41-second mark, and it was 94-92, Boston.
The Sixers caught no breaks on the ensuing possession, either, for when Sichting missed a makeable 18-footer, Barkley and Johnson "oopsed" the ball out of bounds to Boston with 20 seconds to play. Naturally, the Sixers were hoping for a steal or violation, but instead the worst conceivable scenario unfolded. Bobby Jones had to foul Bird at midcourt with seven seconds left.
The first one spun out and the second one rattled out, and Bird had no excuses. "It's all mental," he said. "You make 40 or 50 in a row and I guess you assume you're going to walk up and make 'em all. They was right on target; there's nothing you can do."
Astonished by their good fortune, the 76ers called time. When the ball was put into play, they cleared a side for Barkley (14 points, 14 rebounds), who took the ball to the hoop. McHale met him with two hands on the ball at waist level. Jump ball.
"Charles was confident he could get the tap," said coach Matt Guokas. "It was just a matter of which pocket to cover. Doc shot the ball, and from where I sat it looked good all the way."
The game made up in emotion what it lacked in execution and artistry. Referees Darell Garretson and Mike Mathis were in an extreme let-'em-play mode, resulting in fierce board play and simmering tempers. Things came to a head in the last 25 seconds of the third period when Sedale Threatt and Ainge got into a jam. Threatt was deemed the aggressor and ejected. Ainge stayed around long enough to sink three technical foul shots (two on Threatt and one on a yapping Clemon Johnson) as Boston, which had led by a 48-47 score after being outhustled in the first half, took a 76-68 lead after three quarters.
With Bird (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists for triple-double No. 10 this season) asserting himself in the first 6 1/2 minutes, the lead went to 10 (88-78 and timeout, Philly), and eventually 11, at 90-79. And then the fun really started for the delirious Spectrum gathering of 17,941.
"It was our most satisfying win of the season," beamed Guokas.
Beating Boston without Moses Malone . . . stopping a 14-game Celtic winning streak . . . ruining Boston's chance to tie the all-time best record . . . watching Bird blow the two free throws to make it all possible . . .
Could any Sixer fan be forgiven for believing he or she had passed away and resurfaced in Hoop Heaven?