As the fourth quarter began Sunday, the Boston Celtics were trailing Philadelphia by 11 points. But the Celtics weren't alarmed because they believe the fourth quarter belongs to them. They don't care who gets in their way, whether it is the 76ers or the referees or a dopey mascot named Hot Shot.
So the Celtics went charging onto the court, ready to overtake the 76ers and sweep them out of the Eastern Conference championship series in a tidy four games.
Twenty-one seconds into the quarter, a whistle blew, and the Celtics were charged with a technical foul. They had only four men on the court, a violation of the rules, not to mention good basketball strategy.
But it might not have made any difference on this Sunday afternoon at the Spectrum if the Celtics had played with six men.
It might not have even made a difference if Boston's Larry Bird had been healthy, or at least as healthy as he's been in the last month, instead of trying to play with a jammed index finger on his right hand that was the size of one of Red Auerbach's victory cigars.
No, this game belonged to the 76ers from the opening tipoff. After hardly distinguishing themselves with their effort in the first three games of the series, all losses, the 76ers played this one like there was no tomorrow.
Of course, there wouldn't have been for them if they had lost. Instead, they won, 115-104, to force a Game 5 Wednesday night at Boston Garden.
They were led by a child, albeit a man-sized one.
Starting for the first time in the playoffs, the 76ers' Boy Gorge, 265-pound rookie Charles Barkley, let the Celtics know what they were in for during the first nine minutes of the opening quarter.
At 4-4, Barkley put up a shot, missed, grabbed the rebound, missed again, grabbed another rebound and stuffed it.
At 12-8, Barkley crashed the offensive boards for another rebound and banked it in for two points.
At 22-16, Barkley pulled up from 25 feet and sank a three-pointer.
Starting there, the 76ers scored nine straight points and 12 of the next 14.
When the first-quarter damage was assessed, Barkley had 7 points and 10 rebounds, 4 of them offensive, and the 76ers led, 31-16. They never were really threatened after that.
At game's end, three 76ers outscored Barkley: Andrew Toney with 26, Maurice Cheeks with 22 and Moses Malone with 21. So had a couple of Celtics, Kevin McHale with 25 and Dennis Johnson with 19.
But make no mistake about it. This was Barkley's game, imprinted with his 15 points and 20 rebounds, 7 offensive.
Barkley said last week that if the 76ers lost Game 3 Saturday, they would soon be on their way to the Bahamas for a vacation.
But after the 76ers lost Saturday, 105-94, he apparently decided he wasn't ready for the season to end so abruptly. If the 76ers had lost Sunday, it would have been the first time they had ever been swept in a playoff series.
"We think we have a great team," Barkley said. "If they had swept us, that's something you can't forget. It would have been embarrassing."
Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham said he started Barkley, 21, because he was worried about the effect of back-to-back games on 33-year-old Bobby Jones' already damaged knee.
It turned out to be an excellent move not only because of Barkley's inspired play but also because Jones came from the bench to give the 76ers badly needed outside shooting, making 7 of 8 from the field to finish with 14 points.
Cunningham's decision was applauded by the 76ers' other forward. Who would have thought Julius Erving would ever be considered the other forward?
"Charles is unbelievable," Erving said. "Today's game was a tease. There's going to come a time when he does that nightly. Night in and night out, he's going to be one of the very best players in the NBA. It's nice to watch a rising star, especially when he's in your corner."
Erving is the first to admit that he's on the descent. Even though he scored 15 points Sunday, he had another miserable day shooting. He made only 4-of-21 shots from the field and is 5 for his last 31.
This is the man who said he was going to try to help Toney out of his shooting slump after he went 3 for 17 in the Game 2 loss at Boston.
"The monkey jumped off his back and onto mine," Erving said. "The monkey is still around here. He's just not on my back any more."
Unlike Saturday, when Erving was booed for the first time ever at the Spectrum after making 1-of-10 shots and scoring five points, he was twice given a standing ovation Sunday.
That probably was a result of his enthusiasm, second only to Barkley's, and also because of the defense he played against Bird, who made 4 of 15 shots from the field and finished with 14 points. He had only four at halftime.
Already hampered by floating bone chips in his right elbow, Bird jammed his finger--the same one that is bent due to two previous operations--shortly before the end of the second quarter Saturday, and it swelled overnight.
Boston Coach K.C. Jones said the finger will be examined today to determine whether it is fractured or merely sprained.
Reporters tried to coax Bird into admitting that the injury affected his shooting, but he wouldn't.
"I've got no excuses," he said.
The only Boston player who really distinguished himself was McHale, who had 17 rebounds to go with his 25 points.
K.C. Jones praised the 76ers for their effort but said he thought the Celtics got the short end of the officiating.
He complained about the inconsistency of the calls, the guards being whistled for minor offenses in the backcourt while the big men pummeled each other inside in the most physical of the four games. One Celtic guard, Danny Ainge, fouled out, and two others, Dennis Johnson and Ray Williams, had five fouls each.
Jones directed most of his criticism at Jake O'Donnell, who charged him with a technical foul in the first half. Johnson and reserve guard Quinn Buckner were hit with technicals by Jess Kersey in the second half.
"Besides us playing poorly, I was not happy that I let Jake take over the game," Jones said. "He hit me with a tech(nical), and then he got to the rest of our guys. That's unfortunate, this being a playoff game."
Needing an outlet for the Celtics' frustration, sub M.L. Carr found a target in the 76ers' mascot, Hot Shot.
Hot Shot was assaulting a dummy in a Celtics' uniform during a fourth-quarter timeout. Carr went onto the floor and took the dummy away from Hot Shot.
There was nothing Carr could do about the other dummy in a Celtics' uniform. When the fourth quarter began, reserve forward Cedric Maxwell thought he had been taken out of the game and failed to report for duty.
Perhaps the ultimate indignity for Maxwell is that no one, not even his teammates, noticed he was missing for 21 seconds.