PHILADELPHIA -- Of course, Rex Chapman was fouled, fouled on the game's decisive play, but that's not the point. The point is, the Bullets led by 18 points with 8:22 left, led by 18 against the winless, hapless, clueless Philadelphia 76ers, led by 18 and blew the whole thing.
Sign Juwan Howard, trade for Chris Webber, summon the entire Fab Five. Last night's 98-97 loss was a rather disturbing flashback for a team that appeared suddenly rejuvenated under coach Jim Lynam. Same, old collapse. Same, old heartbreak. Same, old Bullets.
They could have been 3-0 for the first time since 1978-79, but this was more like it. More like the team that won 24 games last season. More like the team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1987-88. More like the team you still can't trust, and probably never will.
Let's start with the nine illegal-defense technicals -- nine! The NBA high past season was seven. What were the Bullets so scared of? The Sixers missed 12 straight shots in the first half. They went almost 10 minutes without a basket. Clearly, they were better off left alone.
But the Bullets had to complicate things. They kept dropping defenders below the foul line, and the referees kept blowing their whistles. Each technical after the first resulted in a free throw and a lost possession. Tough way to win a one-point game -- and that wasn't all of it.
Lynam went with his second team -- Don MacLean, Gheorghe Muresan, Mitchell Butler, Doug Overton and Anthony Tucker -- for the first 5:30 of the fourth quarter. A little early for garbage time, don't you think? Someone tell Lynam quickly -- with the Bullets, there's no such thing as garbage time.
As it turned out, the starters took only three shots in the fourth quarter -- and made none. MacLean scored 12 of his 17 points in that period, but his 18-foot jumper with 4:06 left was the Bullets' last basket. They had three turnovers in the final 1:14. Tom Gugliotta missed a 15-foot fadeaway on their final possession.
The Sixers had one lead in this game -- when Dana Barros hit a layup with 7.1 seconds left. Barros retrieved the ball after he and Jeff Malone pummeled Chapman. "A great no-call," Malone crowed after the Sixers' victory, after he and Barros played George Foreman to Chapman's Michael Moorer.
Chapman tried to split the defenders and wound up getting sandwiched, but the gang tackle failed to impress referee Hue Hollins. "He swallowed his whistle," Chapman said. "I guess I'll apologize for anything I say after looking at the films, but he should do the same. And I'll bet he agrees."
Gugliotta said the call should have been "a no-brainer." MacLean agreed it was clearly a foul. But Lynam said, "It doesn't matter." And Chapman added, "Really, there's no excuse. We had the big lead."
The Bullets had a double-digit lead until the final five minutes, but were outscored, 33-14, down the stretch. The Sixers hit 13 of 19 shots in the fourth quarter, and Malone scored 13 of his game-high 22 points. That's why the Bullets lost. Not because of a no-call with 10 seconds left.
"It's tough when we know we got a good thing going," MacLean said after scoring 17 off the bench in his first game of the season. "You could see if we came out flat and got beat. But we were up by 18. To lose like that makes it tough."
Maybe this was justice. Maybe Lynam had this coming. The Spectrum crowd of 6,811 had virtually no reaction when the Sixers' former GM was introduced. That amounted to a moral victory for Lynam, considering he put this sorry Philadelphia team together.
Lynam, naturally, played down the homecoming angle, seeing as how he didn't exactly return triumphant. "That has nothing to do with it," he said. "You could lose a game like this on Planet Pluton, and it would still be a frustrating loss."
A week before the season started, coach John Lucas said the Sixers might be "awful" for the first 40 games. Until Malone took over last night, their best player was the one Lynam had nothing to do with -- No. 1 draft pick Sharone Wright.
Sixers fans are still steamed at Lynam for trading Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry, and for taking the 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley with the No. 2 pick of the 1993 draft. It's no wonder he couldn't wait to get out of Philadelphia.
Bradley began the night with twice as many fouls (16) as points. The crowd booed his every transgression, but he came up huge in the final moments, hitting a layup over Kevin Duckworth to give the Sixers a 97-96 lead with 44.4 seconds left, then forcing Duckworth to travel.
Trailing by 18 points, the Sixers were morose, but sitting on the bench, Malone reminded Barros, "it's only the Bullets" -- or something to that effect. As Malone later put it, "Not to take anything away from the Bullets, but they're a team we should at least be even with."
Barros wasn't as optimistic. "A chance in hell," was how he assessed the Sixers' chances. But hell is the Bullets' home arena, the place they can't escape, the place they returned last night.