Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham called it a gambling defense. Boston players called it an illegal zone. Whatever, it put some suspense into what looked like a blowout Friday night at Boston Garden.
The 76ers, trailing by 23 points, closed the margin to one point before the Celtics finally escaped with a 112-108 victory.
The victory was the 10th straight for the Celtics, giving them a six-game lead over the 76ers in the Atlantic Division. Philadelphia played without Julius Erving, sidelined by an ankle injury.
Boston's Larry Bird scored a game-high 24 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, but he was annoyed afterward.
"In this league, you're not supposed to play a zone," Bird said. "That's all they did all the second half. All we have to do is get an offense against the zone, and we can beat it."
The officiating team of John Vanak and Tommy Nunez gave one warning to Philadelphia for an illegal defense but no technical fouls.
Bird, who was seen complaining, was asked what the officials had to say.
"Usually they say, 'I'll watch for it,' and go back to daydreaming," he said.
Said Cunningham: "The Celtics built up a nice lead. I am proud of the way we came back, using a gambling defense. We have to try and play each game the way we finished the game tonight."
After Boston built a 23-point lead, the 76ers came charging back midway in the final quarter. A short jumper by George Johnson, who had a season-high 21 points, trimmed the Celtics' edge to 107-105 with 48 seconds to go.
Bird then hit two free throws, but a three-point play by Johnson drew the 76ers to 109-108 with 15 seconds remaining.
Philadelphia was forced to foul, and Scott Wedman sank two free throws for Boston with eight seconds remaining.
The 76ers' last chance died when Johnson missed a three-point try with three seconds left and Bird sank a foul shot with two seconds to play.
Moses Malone led Philadelphia with 22 points and became the 16th player in NBA history to total 10,000 rebounds. With his 16 rebounds Friday, Malone now has a total of 10,012. Charles Barkley added 18 for the 76ers.
For Boston, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson had 22 points each and Danny Ainge added 20.
Houston 121, Golden State 116--Ralph Sampson scored 26 points and Robert Reid added 20 points, 10 in the fourth quarter, for the Rockets at Houston.
The win gave the Rockets a two-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the battle for second place in the Midwest Division.
Golden State, which fell to 20-54, the worst record in the NBA, was led by Eric Floyd with 19 points and Larry Smith with 18.
Washington 122, New Jersey 98--Jeff Malone scored 25 points, and Tom McMillen and Darren Daye came up with a total of 36 points off the bench for the Bullets at Landover, Md.
In the third quarter, Daye scored seven of his 16 points and McMillen six of his 20 as the Bullets built a 20-point lead.
Utah 114, San Antonio 109--Adrian Dantley scored 27 points, hitting 13 of 13 from the line, and pulled down 14 rebounds for the Jazz at Salt Lake City.
Utah's Mark Eaton had 11 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
San Antonio's Mike Mitchell led all scorers with 38 points. Artis Gilmore added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs.
Portland 125, Seattle 99--Mychal Thompson had 22 points and 15 rebounds at Seattle as the Trail Blazers scored their fourth straight win.