PHILADELPHIA - Even at the highest level, basketball is a balancing act of emotion, skill and athleticism. The Milwaukee Bucks may have bounced themselves out of this year's playoffs because they fell off the balance beam at the wrong time.
Leading the Philadelphia 76ers by as many as 16 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals last night, the Bucks came unglued in the third period, drawing a technical foul and a flagrant foul within a four-minute span to allow the Sixers to crawl their way back into the game, even with a horrid shooting night by Allen Iverson, the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
But the Sixers used the cool fire of point guard Eric Snow, who was thought to be a game-time scratch because of an ankle fracture, to nip Milwaukee, 89-88, before a raucous sellout crowd at First Union Center.
Philadelphia leads the series 3-2 heading to Game 6 tomorrow night in Milwaukee, and will have two chances to clinch its first berth in the league championship series since 1983.
Snow, who suffered a fracture on the inside of his right ankle, had 18 points, including the last four for Philadelphia on two perimeter jumpers in the final two minutes.
"My wife is really upset with me being out there. 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," said Snow.
"I got the OK to go out and try it out. I was blessed and fortunate enough to make a big contribution."
Said 76ers coach Larry Brown: "Everybody's aware of what he's going through, but there are an awful lot of kids in this league that are like that. This town hasn't been that easy on this kid. Anytime we struggle, they look at him."
The Bucks had a chance to win on the final possession, but Glenn Robinson missed a short baseline jumper with less than three seconds to go. Ray Allen missed a tip-in, and Jason Caffey's tip came after the final horn.
The Bucks came unhinged in the third period, when Sam Cassell, the former Dunbar and Florida State guard and 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. Iverson calmly sank all four foul shots to pull Philadelphia within five at 63-58.
After Dikembe Mutombo scored on a hook on the next possession to cut the Milwaukee lead to three, Iverson would end a string of 10 straight misses from the floor with a baseline jumper to tie the score at 63 with 2:39 to go in the third.
Then, after hitting a three-pointer and an off-balance jumper to give the Bucks a five-point lead, Robinson, who has complained that he didn't shoot any free throws in the first five games of the series, pushed Tyrone Hill into the basket stanchion, drawing a flagrant foul, which brings two free throws and possession. Hill hit both foul shots to start a 7-2 run that tied the score at 70 after three periods.
In the fourth, the Bucks regained their composure. After the Sixers scored the first four points of the quarter, Ray Allen scored seven straight, converting a three point play, then making a free throw after sinking a three-pointer. Cassell would hit two free throws with 6:14 to go to give Milwaukee a four-point lead.
But the Sixers continued to battle, as Snow hit a drive, Hill sank two free throws and Aaron McKie got a putback and hit a free throw to give Philadelphia an 85-84 lead. The two teams alternated leads until Snow's baseline jumper gave the Sixers their final margin.