This article was originally published in the Inquirer on May 31, 2001.
There were injuries before the game and after. There was perfection from the free-throw line, and imperfection at the most inopportune time. But once once the final buzzer had distinguished winner from loser, the outcome was all the more satisfying for the 76ers.
For Eric Snow, as well.
Snow culminated the Sixers' evening by drilling two key jumpers in the game's last two minutes, including the clincher with 31.7 seconds remaining. Then he watched as guard Aaron McKie made amends for an earlier blunder by stopping Glenn Robinson at the end, helping the Sixers secure a heart-stopping 89-88 win over the Milwaukee Bucks last night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at a packed First Union Center.
McKie had missed two free throws with 13.9 seconds left, giving the Bucks one last chance at victory. But when Robinson got the ball, he drove on the left wing, faked out McKie, and launched an eight-foot baseline jumper - and missed the shot. Ray Allen followed up with a tap, but that missed as well.
And by the time forward Jason Caffey had one last chance at victory, the final buzzer sounded, Sixers general manager Billy King thrust his fists in the air, and the Sixers were heading back to Milwaukee for Game 6 - one win away from going to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983.
"It was tough," Snow said afterward, about his decision to play despite a fractured right ankle. "When you're making that decision, you're thinking, 'Is it selfish of you to try and go out and play when, maybe, there are other guys that can play in front of you? ' My thing was I just wanted to go out and see what I could do. If I felt I was hurting the team, I would tell Coach, 'Hey, play Kevin Ollie. '
"But who knows? I may not be here next year. We may not get this opportunity again. You look around the locker room, I'm the only guy that's been to an NBA Finals [in 1996 with Seattle], and I didn't play. So you never know. "
One win, and all of the Sixers will find out what it's like to advance to an NBA Finals. But last night won't be forgotten.
When league MVP Allen Iverson is completely off his game, shooting 5 of 27 for 15 points; when the offense revolves around center Dikembe Mutombo, and he comes up big with 21 points and 13 rebounds - his 11th double-double of this postseason - and two blocked shots; when McKie is subpar with 15 points; and the team wins despite 31-of-84 shooting, that's difficult to forget.
But the Bucks are the team that seems to be focused on the negative.
"What can you do?" said disgusted Milwaukee forward Tim Thomas, who scored 15 points in the loss. "We had the game taken away from us. A bunch of bogus calls didn't go our way. But what can you really do, other than find the positive in all of this"
"We came into their house and we know we did what it took to win this game. Just a few calls here and there changed everything, but we pretty much did what we wanted to do. So we've just got to take care of business on Friday, then come back here on Sunday, that's all. "
It didn't seem as if things would come down to this early in the game. With 2:57 left in the first quarter, the Bucks were shooting the lights out at the First Union Center. They had gone up, 26-13. And none of the Sixers was responding to the challenge.
By the end of the first quarter, Milwaukee was up, 29-21. With 5:48 left in the half, that lead increased to 43-27. By halftime, the Bucks were up, 51-42, and matters weren't getting any better for the Sixers.
Everything they did, the Bucks had an offensive response. Always from the perimeter, always from a different player. And the Sixers appeared to be bewildered, looking for divine intervention.
By the end of the third, it had arrived in the form of a questionable call against Sam Cassell, who fouled Iverson beyond the three-point line. Cassell received a technical foul for arguing the call, Iverson hit all four free throws. By the end of the quarter, the score was tied at 70-70. The momentum had drastically shifted.
Milwaukee's frustration was conspicuous.
"I think we did a hell of a job [keeping our composure] for what we were up against," Cassell said. "We are men out there. We can only take so much. We hit, we get called. They hit, they get nothing. I am open for suggestions. What should we do? "
Take some lessons from the Sixers, for starters.
After an Iverson jumper gave the Sixers a 72-70 lead, after the score was tied at 78, with 7:34 left in regulation, after a flagrant foul called against Tim Thomas allowed Tyrone Hill to tie the score at 82, a thriller was underway.
Eventually, Snow's jumper with 1:46 left gave the Sixers an 87-86 lead. The clincher with 31.7 seconds left was supposed to close the deal. That is, until McKie made it interesting.
"I was ready to hang myself if we lost this game," McKie said. "I never miss free throws in those situations. If I miss those, what am I here for? I was so upset. Luckily for me, Eric came through for me.
"I'm proud of him. I'm proud of us. Not many people have gotten to say they're within one game of an NBA Finals. "
That's not the case for the Sixers anymore. Now all they have to do is make sure Milwaukee isn't able to say the same thing come Saturday morning.