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Worrisome cracks appeared in the Bulls' facade as the 1996-'97 regular season came to an end. Not only did they lose three of their final four games to fall short of 70 wins, each of those losses came at the hands of a potential playoff opponent: the Detroit Pistons, the Miami Heat, and the New York Knicks. It was the Pistons' first victory over the Bulls in 20 games, and the first ever for both second-year coach Doug Collins and third-year star Grant Hill. For the Heat, now coached by the Bulls' old New York nemesis, Pat Riley, the win was their second of the season over the Bulls, allowing them to claim a split of the four-game series. The same went for the Knicks, who ended an 11-game skid in Chicago by winning Saturday night for the first time at the United Center. A team that likes to assert its dominance by sending mental messages at every opportunity, the Bulls were suddenly on the receiving end.

Of course, the Bulls lacked both Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman down the stretch, not to mention Bill Wennington--all out with injuries. Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson cited those injuries without blaming them for the losses, but they were clearly a little shaken Saturday night. "Well," Jackson said, stepping to the podium in the media room after losing to the Knicks, "that was a game that--" he paused before adding "--we gave a good effort."

"I'm pretty sure it's a confidence builder for them," Jordan admitted.

"A lot of people don't realize this team [the Bulls] played undermanned or understaffed for a lot of time this season," Jackson said, "and eventually it catches up with you in certain situations, and this was one of them."

"When we're full-strength," Jordan said, "I think everyone knows how well we can play together."

All of us lead lives built upon various rationalizations. The great thing about sports is that victory and defeat provide a very simple judgment of their merits. Lose, and you've been caught lying to yourself; win, and you remain a person of honor.

In those final three losses the Bulls played like a team without even its pride at stake. As the games were of no consequence--the Bulls had long before clinched home-court advantage through the playoffs, and they'd reached 70 victories a year ago--Jackson reined in his team, especially on the defensive end, so that the opponents couldn't study its tactics before the playoffs. This had a noticeable effect on the Bulls' inspiration level. They played against the Pistons, the Heat, and the Knicks like a team with nothing to win. The Pistons and the Knicks, on the other hand, were fighting for preferable playoff positions, and their wins over the Bulls proved crucial. The Knicks clinched a third-place finish in the NBA's Eastern Conference by beating the Bulls, thus earning the right to play the sixth-place Charlotte Hornets, who were edged out for the fifth seed by, yes, the Pistons. The Knicks also avoided a potential second-round meeting with the Bulls, putting themselves instead in the same bracket as the Heat.

Many Bulls aficionados desired that outcome all along: "Let the Heat and the Knicks knock each other out," they say, "then we'll take on whoever staggers out of that series in the conference finals." Me, I'm not so sure. For all their New York bluster, the Knicks remain a basically slow and predictable team, just the sort the Bulls usually slice and dice in the harsh mental playing conditions of the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks, however, the team the Knicks pushed into fourth place and a potential second-round meeting with the Bulls, are young, speedy, athletic, and unpredictable, a team that could give the Bulls fits at this advanced stage in most of their careers. A quick team, the Hawks are also more capable of playing the swarming defense Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl developed to attack the Bulls earlier this season, a defense adapted from Riley's old New York defense--with Riley in turn lifting Karl's innovations (in brief, speed over muscle and rashness over patience) in Miami's win over the Bulls last week. I'd rather have played the Knicks in the second round--physical defense or not--and let the Heat and Hawks wear each other down. Of course, the Hawks still have to beat the Pistons in a best-of-five opening series, while the Bulls have to get past the Washington Bullets, a young, unpredictable team that has much in common, stylistically, with the Hawks. Oh, and in case anyone forgot, the Bullets also beat the Bulls in their final meeting, earlier this month.

"My mind-set is to put the 69 wins and the 82 games behind us and try to mend this team back to where it was--physically first, emotionally second," Jordan said, "and to motivate some of these players who never really had to defend anything. Defending [the title] is the most difficult thing you can do in this game."

If memory serves--and, with the help of the team's media guide, it does--the Bulls staggered home at the end of the 1992-'93 season with two straight losses and three losses in their last five games. Yet they put themselves back together in the few days before the playoffs and swept the Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers before losing the first two games of the conference finals in New York to the Knicks. Then the Bulls took four straight from the Knicks (remember Charles Smith?) on the way to a six-game victory over Phoenix in the NBA finals for their third straight championship. The Bulls are hoping they can do the same now, with the help of a solid week of practice before tonight's opening game against the Bullets.

As bad as the Bulls looked last week against the Pistons, Heat, and Knicks--and even Jordan called the last game "an ugly loss"--they weren't that far from playing their best basketball. On Saturday night Jordan, needing 62 points to reach an average of 30 on the season (a level he'd maintained every full season he played after his rookie year), clearly seemed to have such a game in mind at the outset. He scored the Bulls' first two baskets on crisp jumpers from outside. When Jason Caffey and Ron Harper added back-to-back three-point plays, the Bulls led 14-6. John Starks came off the New York bench to rally the Knicks, but Steve Kerr's three-point shot with three seconds to play gave the Bulls a 27-25 lead at the quarter. They padded that out to 58-48 at the half with the help of some stunning bench play by the revitalized Jud Buechler. The forgotten man early in the season, Buechler benefited most from Kukoc's injury; at one point he came leaping in for an offensive rebound, leaned back to catch the carom, and stuffed the ball into the hoop. He landed on his heels with his arms outstretched as if he were doing his Fat Albert imitation.

In the second half both teams went flat and the Knicks benefited, slogging their way back into the game. "When you have thoroughbreds you run. When you have plow horses you plow," Jackson once said in comparing the Bulls to the Riley-era Knicks, and that remark remains as apropos as ever. Jordan, who had seen early on that 62 was out of the question, remained sharp. He hit a 24-second-clock buzzer beater from outside to make it 75-68 Bulls, and as he trotted past blew some shit to Spike Lee in the courtside seat next to Gene Siskel. The Knicks kept coming, however, and tied the game in the fourth quarter at 85 and again at 87 before going ahead 90-89 on a three-pointer by Starks. The Bulls reclaimed the lead after a steal by Jordan, who drove downcourt and passed back to a trailing Kerr for an open three. Scottie Pippen added a lovely scoop in the lane and Jordan a turnaround jumper from the free-throw line over Starks, and the Bulls led 97-94 with 150 seconds to play.

Yet the Bulls could never muster the defensive intensity to put the game away. Starks drove the baseline for an all-too-easy layup, then Allan Houston stopped and popped on a fast break to make it 98-97 Knicks. Jordan gave the Bulls their last lead with another jumper over Starks, but Patrick Ewing scored over Luc Longley to put the Knicks back in front, 100-99. After another New York defensive stop, the critical play of the game took place. Again the Knicks passed the ball down low to Ewing, but this time Longley stripped him. The ball went rolling across the floor and Kerr dived for it, but a sprawling Ewing knocked it loose and the ball rolled right to Starks at the three-point line. Starks scooped it up and launched it through the hoop for a 103-99 New York lead. Pippen added a couple of free throws, and the Bulls finally got their defensive stop. But in the final seconds Jordan came down, was triple-teamed in the lane, and passed wide to Kerr. As a New York defender ran at him, Kerr, instead of shooting, tossed the ball to Pippen, who clanked a woulda-been game-winning three-pointer long off the backboard.

If there was a benefit to the Bulls' late-season woes, it was that they silenced the press box ignoramuses who'd insisted earlier in the season that the Bulls could defend their title without Rodman. (His rebounding will be especially necessary against the Bullets, with their front line of Gheorghe Muresan, Chris Webber, and Juwan Howard.) He might have turned up on the bench for the Knicks game in a lime-green suit suitable for posing for LeRoy Neiman on the set of Playboy After Dark, but his defense and his ability to retrieve the ball are essential to the team. The Knicks outrebounded the Bulls 42-34, after the Pistons had fought them to a draw at 41 each and the Heat to a near draw at 38-36. Rodman's penchant for publicity might be gimmickry, but as a player he is no gimmick. The same goes for Kukoc, who is the one player no other team has an answer for when he gets going. Yet what the Bulls really lacked in the final games was something that might best be described as the eye of the Tiger.

Tiger Woods himself showed up for the Bulls' last game, fresh from his Masters triumph and seated in the courtside seats behind the basket at the Knicks' end of the court. He drew a standing ovation when tournament highlights were shown on the stadium TV screen, and rightly so. His performance in that event was the epitome of greatness, as at the age of 21 he set a four-day scoring record at Augusta National (18-under-par 270), with a 12-stroke margin of victory that smashed the old mark of 9 set by Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd. In the second and third rounds he made few if any mistakes, typically bombing par-five greens with a wedge after a booming drive, and finishing the third round with a shot that bounced long on the fringe of the green and then spun back to within inches of the cup. Some found fault with his shaky final round, but that was the round I enjoyed most. As anyone who plays golf knows, it's the easiest game in the world when it's easy and the hardest when it's hard (just ask Greg Norman, who blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo last year). Woods, however, is not only a great driver but a truly talented improviser when he places himself in difficulty. I still remember how he hung on against all hope in his first U.S. Amateur final against Trip Kuehne, driving the ball into trouble hole after hole and somehow saving pars with an acrobatic short game before righting himself and charging for the victory. He followed the same pattern in the final round at Augusta, struggling early, holding himself together with some nervy saves, and then finishing strong. Having kept himself under tight control throughout the weekend, he lashed at the air with that trademark Tiger swipe when he sank the putt that gave him a record score.

Woods's spectacular abilities and coolness under pressure have earned him comparisons to Jordan, and as Nike colleagues they have been thrust together for reasons both natural and commercial. Jordan has been respectful and friendly with Woods, but has also taken umbrage with reporters over the inevitable comparisons. Asked if Woods was "Michael Jordan in long pants," Jordan responded, "I wear long pants." It's thrilling to see Woods realize his immense potential so soon into his professional career, but the real test of his greatness--the test of all great athletes in the gilded age of sport--is how he responds when, win or lose, those checks from Nike just keep rolling in. Jordan has found ways, again and again, to reinspire himself on the basketball court, and while most of the media seemed to regard the Woods-Jordan meeting as the apprentice consulting the master, there was something in Jordan's demeanor, as he answered those Tiger Woods questions after the loss to the Knicks, that suggested it might be the other way around, that Jordan might use Woods as a new source of inspiration. Asked which team he was most concerned about going into the playoffs, Jordan said, "Ourselves. If we go out and play our game I'm not worried about anybody else."

Jackson, too, talked himself into some courage as he answered reporters' questions. Asked if this was perhaps "the last hurrah," with himself and Jordan both on one-year contracts, he said it was "too early to speculate," adding, "Ask me June 14 or 15 or 16 or 17," all potential last days of the NBA finals. If that sounded like bold talk coming from a man evidently growing a good-luck beard for the playoffs, come tonight's game it probably won't seem false optimism.

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