PHILADELPHIA -- Tact is not a word that comes to mind while watching or listening to Charles Barkley. He craves contact and controversy.
Last night, playing with a stress fracture in his left ankle, Barkley scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, as the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Washington Bullets, 108-100. After wrecking the Bullets, Barkley took a friendly, though pointed, verbal swipe at Washington's All-Star forward Bernard King.
Asked whether King was on the plateau normally reserved for Barkley, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the Philadelphia forward rolled his eyes, lifted his arm above his head and said: "There are five or six players up here, and then, there are a lot of great players. Let's be serious, those players are up there, and King is down here."
Playing down with the mortals isn't that embarrassing. But King is not at full strength now. He scored only 12 points, playing tentatively one game after his near-collapse Sunday at Boston Garden. He was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital after complaining of dizziness and shortness of breath. Tests revealed he had suffered an allergic reaction from taking a vitamin supplement.
King, the National Basketball Association's No. 3 scorer, left The Spectrum quickly after last night's game and did not comment on his performance.
"He just didn't have a very good game," Bullets coach Wes Unseld said. "He's entitled to one. No more."
The Bullets, who lost their third straight game and dropped to 20-27, gave a surprisingly aggressive performance on one of those cruel February nights the NBA dishes up before the All-Star break. The teams were exhausted and battered, dispensing with artistry for brute force and endurance.
"The two worst games of the year are the one before the All-Star break and the one before the playoffs," Barkley said. "Everyone wants to go home."
Guard Hersey Hawkins led Philadelphia with a career-high 39 points. But he said he ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and placed the game in Barkley's hands. Barkley delivered as Philadelphia broke a two-game losing streak to raise its record to 25-21.
"I always tell the guys that with five minutes left, it's my game, it's my show," Barkley said.
The Bullets, who finished Sunday's game in Boston with only six healthy players, suited up 11 men. Harvey Grant led Washington with 24 points, A.J. English added 21 and Byron Irvin had 16.
The Bullets led, 88-85, after Mark Alarie's field goal with 8:27 remaining. But faced with a trapping defense, the Bullets offense went into vapor lock. Washington was held scoreless for 4:13, as Philadelphia ran off 10 straight points for a 95-88 lead with 4:14 remaining.
"We did not force the issue at all," Unseld said. "Right now, we're not very good at handling the trapping. We do this all the time."
Actually, the Bullets did not turn the ball over much. But they were forced to rush their shots.
"The guys are not used to playing against pressure," Grant said. "Sooner or later, our guards will get experience to see what we have to do. We got shots. They didn't go in."
The Bullets also had defensive problems at shooting guard. Hawkins, who was in a shooting slump, laid waste to the Bullets' defenders, particularly Irvin.
"When you face a team with young 2-guards, you go at them," said Hawkins, who was 11 of 23 from the field.
But in the end, it was Barkley who turned the game. Slamming into defenders, throwing up shots, he dominated the fourth quarter and sent the Bullets to another loss.
"That's what he gets paid to do, get his shots at the end," Grant said. "Some players you can't stop. You try to change them. Barkley is just one of those players. We didn't stop him."
Opponent: New Jersey Nets
Site: Capital Centre, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: This is the Bullets' final game before the All-Star break. They return to action Tuesday with a three-game road trip through Texas against San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. The Nets had lost five straight before last night's game against Miami. C. Sam Bowie has missed 11 straight games with a bruised thigh. G Reggie Theus leads team in scoring (19.6 ppg). F Derrick Coleman is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, averaging 16.4 points and 10.3 rebounds. F Chris Dudley is averaging 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game. The Bullets, led by Bernard King's 38 points, won the only previous meeting, at the Meadowlands on Nov. 12, 97-92.