LANDOVER -- Charles Barkley has a simple defensive philosophy in down-to-the-wire contests.
"You don't let their best guy beat you," said the Philadelphia 76ers star forward.
The 76ers, trailing the Washington Bullets by four points with 85 seconds to play at the Capital Centre last night, followed Barkley's advice in denying Michael Adams (33 points, 15 rebounds) the ball with the game on the line.
The strategy worked to perfection, as the Bullets managed one shot in crunch time while the 76ers used a three-point play by Armon Gilliam and a back-door layup by Hersey Hawkins off a Barkley pass with 5.7 seconds left to clinch their first victory of the season, 107-106.
There was still time for the Bullets to get off a final shot. But they lost two vital seconds on the clock when Hawkins deflected a pass out of bounds.
Left with 3.9 seconds and Barkley over-playing Adams, almost a foot shorter, the Bullets found center Pervis Ellison free behind the foul line.
Ellison shot a high-arcing 20-footer that seemed to be on the mark, but just grazed the front rim. Barkley (33 points, 19 rebounds) grabbed the ball as the buzzer sounded, and the Bullets were no longer perfect.
"The last play was designed to go to Ledell [Eackles] or Harvey [Grant], but we couldn't get the ball to them," said coach Wes Unseld. "It was a tough loss, but I'm more interested in the effort. Right now, we're operating on high octane, and I just hope we can maintain it."
The Bullets got a big offensive lift from Eackles (22 points in 24 minutes), who was also impressive in his uncustomarily strong defensive job on Hawkins (5-for-16, 21 points).
"I'm finally realizing that the key to staying on the floor is playing tough defense," said Eackles, who has spent considerable time the past three years in the coaches' doghouse for his passive defensive play.
Eackles joined Adams in keying the fourth-quarter surge when the Bullets rallied from a 95-90 deficit to gain a 106-102 advantage on Grant's three-point play with 1 minute, 25 seconds remaining.
Strong half-court defense and aggressive offensive rebounding by Ellison, Grant and Adams kept the 76ers in check, but a dramatic reversal took place in the final minutes.
With a chance to put it away, Grant was called for three seconds in the lane. Gilliam then found an opening for a dunk and added a free throw with 33 seconds left.
Barkley, not known for his defense, then forced a 24-second violation by smothering Eackles as the clock expired.
"I know Ledell likes to go right, but if he was going to beat me, he'd have to go left," Barkley said. "He finally wound up with no place to go."
Barkley then turned his talents to the offensive end.
"We didn't want Barkley to catch the ball," Unseld said. "In that situation, even if he doesn't make a shot, he's liable to get fouled rolling to the hoop."
The Bullets effectively double-teamed Barkley on the inbounds pass, but he spotted Hawkins going back-door behind a lunging Adams, and the 76ers guard made the winning shot.
But Barkley, who criticized team management for several roster moves, was not ready to celebrate.
"Do you think we just won a championship tonight?" he asked. "It only adds up to one win."
The Bullets were taking a more positive approach.
"This was just one of those games that got away," said Adams, who has 96 points and 39 steals in his first three games since returning to the Bullets. "If we could have had just one more shot at the basket in the last minute and a half, we would have won this one.
"We fell short, but things are coming together. Tonight, the 76ers overplayed me, so I was more conscious about getting the other guys involved. Ledell did a super job. If we had won the game, I would have given him the ball."
But it was Barkley who had most of the answers and the final word.
After seeing him fling his fist into the air in a victory salute as he walked off the floor, a TV interviewer asked Barkley if he enjoyed playing the game.
"Yeah, I enjoy playing," he said, "but $4 million a year don't hurt."
The Bullets will try to rebound tonight when they travel to Orlando to play the Magic.