PHILADELPHIA - Even at its highest level, basketball is a balancing act of emotion, skill and athleticism, but in their remarkable run through the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers are adding another component: heart.
The Sixers, who are more closely resembling a M*A*S*H* unit than a team that finished with the best record in the East, patched together a rather unlikely 89-88 win in Game 5 of the conference finals last night over the Milwaukee Bucks.
It was the most recent addition to the hospital list, point guard Eric Snow, who came through with 18 points, including the last four Philadelphia points in the final two minutes.
Snow, who was nearly scratched from the game because of a fracture on the inside of his right ankle, hit the winning basket with 31.7 seconds to go and moved Philadelphia within a game of clinching the franchise's first berth in the league championship series since the 1982-83 season.
Game 6 is tomorrow night in Milwaukee. A seventh game, if necessary, would be back at First Union Center on Sunday night.
Snow's new fracture comes near a screw placed near the same spot to close another fracture he had previously suffered. Snow met with team doctors before the game, who advised him that though he will need surgery after the season, he couldn't sustain any more damage by playing.
"My wife is really upset with me being out there," Snow said. "She supports it [his decision to play], but she's really worried about me and my ability to play in the future. I just wanted to give it a go. I got the OK to go out and try it out. I was blessed and fortunate enough to make a big contribution."
Said Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson: "The guy just played with a lot of heart. I don't want to act like because I play hurt that it is contagious, but he's been like that all year. I was looking at his X-rays [yesterday] and I was sitting there, just shaking my head, knowing that he has a screw in his foot already. Then, I saw how big the fracture was and I just said to myself how happy I was to be a part of something like this. That's special to have teammates like that, who lay it on the line."
The Sixers trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half, but clawed and battled, as they have all season, to get close. While Iverson, the league's Most Valuable Player who has been battling a tailbone injury, was suffering through a 5-for-27 shooting performance, center Dikembe Mutombo had 21 points and 13 rebounds to give Philadelphia an inside presence.
Meanwhile, the Bucks, who have complained throughout the series about a discrepancy in officials' calls, came unglued in the third period, drawing a technical foul and two flagrant fouls in the second half to help the Sixers get back in the game.
Sam Cassell, the former Dunbar and Florida State guard and the Bucks' emotional leader, was whistled for fouling Iverson in the act of shooting a three-pointer with 5:29 to go. Cassell continued to argue the call with referee Bennett Salvatore, who hit him with a technical.
Later, both Glenn Robinson and Tim Thomas drew flagrant fouls, which added fuel to Milwaukee's emotional fire. After the game, Milwaukee coach George Karl reacted angrily to a question about the Bucks' third-quarter emotional flameout, storming out of a post-game news conference after taking only two questions and cursing at the media corps.
"I think we did a hell of a job [keeping composure) for what we were up against," Cassell said. "We are men out there. We can only take so much. We hit, they get calls. They hit, we get nothing. I am open for suggestions. What should we do?"