But there was one on that wounded but proud Sixers team who had been in this spot many times before. He knew the opera wasn't over. And when Julius Erving hit a three-pointer with no time left to give the Sixers an incredible 95-94 victory, he turned the crowd into a quivering and screaming mass of humanity.
"There were a lot of fat ladies singing in the stands after the buzzer sounded," said Erving.
Erving had saved his best for the closing act. He went on a nine-point tear before sinking the 28-foot shot that ended a few quests for the Celtics.
Boston had been on a 14-game winning streak, the longest of the season for any team in the NBA, and had been threatening to tie the 69-13 record established by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
"I was glad to see him do so well," Larry Bird said of Erving, "but I hate to see him do it against us. I have a lot of respect for the man."
Erving's shot, his second game-winning three-pointer of the season, was the climax of a game that took on riotous proportions at the end of the third quarter, when the Sixers' Sedale Threatt was ejected for punching Danny Ainge in the face.
The benches cleared, but there were no more fisticuffs, at least not on the court. Fights broke out in the stands sporadically. It took several minutes to restore order.
The fans didn't become emotionally charged again until those last amazing minutes, which were rife with logic-defying plays.
Erving, who had 23 points, started the avalanche of emotion with his nine- point burst. He scored on a follow shot and a three-pointer before stealing an errant Boston pass and driving the length of the court for a finger roll. The Doctor finished the run with two free throws that brought the Sixers within four, 92-88.
Dennis Johnson silenced the crowd momentarily with a jumper. Then came another series of unbelievable plays.
Terry Catledge, playing well beyond the limitations of a man who stands 6- foot-8, went up strong against 7-foot Robert Parish, scored on a layup and completed a three-point play to cut the lead to 94-91 with 1:04 left.
Johnson then put Maurice Cheeks on the foul line after losing the ball to the Sixers. And Cheeks, the Sixers' ablest foul shooter with an 84 percent norm, missed one of two shots with 41 seconds left.
A bigger shock was to come with 7 seconds left when Bird, the league's best free-throw shooter (89.7 percent), poised himself at the foul line for the first time in the game, with a chance to bury the team he likes to beat the most.
"To quote Cedric Maxwell," Erving said, "it was like watching the sun come up on the wrong side of the world."
Bird, who had hit 76 of his last 81 free throws, missed both shots and left the Sixers 6 seconds to get victory No. 52.
"When you don't concentrate at the foul line, that's what happens: You miss two," said Bird, who got his 10th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. "Right now, all we want is for the regular season to be over and get on with the playoffs."
Sixers coach Matt Guokas, during the ensuing timeout, called a play designed to clear the floor for Barkley to go to the basket. He did, but Kevin McHale tied him up with 3 seconds left.
Barkley, at 6-6, gives up 5 inches to the long-limbed McHale, but there was little doubt in the Sixers' huddle who would win the tipoff.
"I felt I could get up quicker," said Barkley, who had 14 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. "I told the ref (Mike Mathis) to throw it as high as he could."
Guokas, during another timeout, had Cheeks and Erving primed to go to predetermined spots.
"Coach (assistant Jimmy) Lynam told me not to steal it too bad," said Barkley, who was mindful of not telegraphing where he intended to knock the ball. "He said, 'Don't make it obvious.' "
It was a perfect tip right into the hands of Erving, who didn't hesitate before firing the deciding shot over Ainge's outstretched arm.
"I'm going to be very honest with you and say there was an element of luck," Erving said. "That's not my everyday shot."
Guokas, with a vivid memory of the 50-footer Erving made to beat the Mavericks in Dallas in February, said, "From where I was sitting, it looked like it was going in all the way."