The Baltimore Arena scoreboard had its customary breakdowns throughout the game last night, but the Washington Bullets offense also went haywire, failing to score a field goal in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.
But Philadelphia forward Charles Barkley worked to near perfection in the final quarter, when he scored 15 of his game-high 30 points to lead the 76ers to a 105-101 victory before a sellout crowd of 12,054.
Barkley, who has made more headlines in recent weeks with his off-the-court escapades, broke a 103-103 tie by hitting an 18-foot baseline jumper with five seconds left.
His shot had followed a block by 7-foot-6 center Manute Bol on a layup attempt by Larry Stewart. The Bullets rookie forward had a chance to redeem himself as he drove to the basket with three seconds remaining. But Barkley got a piece of the ball, forcing a turnover.
"He grabbed my whole arm," said Stewart. "It should have been a foul."
But no whistle blew, and Washington was then forced to foul. Hersey Hawkins made two insurance free throws with 1.3 seconds left.
Barkley's fourth-quarter blitz was hardly surprising to Bullets coach Wes Unseld.
"I told my guys before the game that if you let the 76ers stay close, Barkley will take over the game," Unseld said. "We try to double-team every chance we get because we don't have a single guy who can stop him."
But just as frustrating for Unseld was the Bullets inability to beat the 76ers trapping defense in the last quarter when the Philadelphia used a 16-4 run to take a 92-89 lead.
Two nights earlier at the Capital Centre, the Miami Heat used a similar trap to disrupt the Bullets offense on the way to a 102-94 victory.
"We looked timid attacking the traps," said Unseld. "We'd get the ball to the man in the middle, like we're supposed to, but then he wouldn't do anything with it. He's supposed to be a big part of our offense."
The unnamed party was veteran forward Harvey Grant, but his tentative Bullets teammates did little to present him with passing options.
"I blame myself," said Grant (3-for-13, seven points), who had his hands full guarding Barkley. "I'm a shooter. I should be looking for my shots."
For three quarters, the Bullets (14-23) seemed in command, primarily on the strength of the continued strong play from center Pervis Ellison (28 points, 16 rebounds). But then, their offense matched the malfunctioning 24-second clock in coming to a screeching halt.
"Inserting Bol in the fourth quarter was our key strategic move," said 76ers coach Jim Lynam. "With Manute under the basket as our eraser, he let us scramble more and disrupt their offense."
Added Hawkins, who scored 21, "Manute was our hero down the stretch, but it won't show up in the box score."
After their seven-minute scoring famine, the Bullets finally regrouped behind the shooting of reserve guard A. J. English. He hit three jumpers and Ellison followed with two free throws to reclaim the lead, 97-96.
But Barkley was just warming to his task. The brash forward, who has been involved in two barroom brawls in the past month, answered with a three-point play on a baseline drive.
Ellison made a scoop shot and a tip-in to push the Bullets back on top, 101-99, but Ron Anderson's floater in the lane tied it again, setting the stage for Barkley's last-second heroics.
"That was vintage Barkley," said Lynam. "He made a great shot on his last basket. He took Stewart baseline and shot over him before the Bullets could trap."
Barkley, who has also authored an autobiography fittingly called "Outrageous," has chosen not to talk to the media the past two weeks, before or after games. He managed, however, to have the final word against the Bullets, who have lost two heart-breakers to the 76ers at home this season.
The two teams will meet again at The Spectrum tomorrow night.