The Bulls returned home late last month from a seven-game road trip that saw them go 18 days between dates at Chicago Stadium. That's not quite 40 days in the wilderness, and only James Worthy knows what temptations they were faced with and overcame on the road, but there was no denying that something happened out there that transformed the Bulls, quite suddenly, into the real thing. They departed in confusion and returned with a unity of purpose, and in their next two home games, as it's written, there went out a fame of them through all the region round about, making believers of us all.
Not to get bogged down in messianic delusions, but the Bulls left us thinking--after their 155-127 thrashing of the Phoenix Suns, a team that, like the Bulls, reached the league semifinals last season--that they are truly a championship-caliber team, that when they're on their game no one is a match for them. They've been brought down a notch since then, but--if we dare mix Testaments-- they've been to the mountaintop. The rest of the season, right down to the playoffs, will be spent trying to recapture, harness, and perhaps even improve upon their play of late November and early December.
Leading the way for the Bulls were, once again, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Last season, when Pippen blossomed into an all-star, he began to complement Jordan in a way that was continually amazing. Ever since he joined the Bulls, Jordan has had streaks where he elevates his game and carries the team for 5 or 10 or even 20 minutes at a stretch. Pippen, last year, began to try to raise his game to keep pace with Jordan during those stretches, and the two took control of the team. They dictated the Bulls' style: tough defense, always on the alert for the steal, and opportunistic basketball, always hoping to trigger the fast break and the easy-- or startling--hoop. It seemed sometimes they knew each other's thoughts, or that some basketball muse was whispering the same orders to both. Basketball played at the level Jordan and Pippen were playing it last season cannot be dropped and then picked up after a three-month vacation; even for players of their skill, it takes time and practice. And Pippen, in the first few games of the season, found himself in frequent foul trouble. When they arrived home from the road trip, however, they were beginning to show flashes of their mid-season form.
In their homecoming, against the Washington Bullets, the Bulls opened going straight to Jordan. They posted him down low, under the hoop, against the smaller Darrell Walker. "We wanted to get him going," said coach Phil Jackson afterward, "because he actually has an advantage in the post area with Walker, and Walker's always been a threat to us. We like to put him on the defense right away and keep him back on his heels." With Jordan scoring 15 in the first quarter, the Bulls opened a 39-26 lead.
Even so, Jackson's strategy had little to do with the intricate play of Jordan and Pippen. They displayed their mastery early and often. Jordan hung out a long, wide, tantalizing sideline pass to Pippen, enticing Washington's Bernard King to lunge for the steal. Pippen pulled the pass in as King dove out of bounds, and he drove for an uncontested dunk. Later, Jordan got the ball in the backcourt on the transition and, while seemingly issuing orders to John Paxson, passed long to Pippen under the basket on the fast break for another dunk. Then, early in the second half, in their most amazing sequence of the game, Pippen stole the ball under the Bulls' defensive basket and, falling out of bounds, lofted a saving pass to Jordan. He dribbled the ball upcourt on the double, with Pippen returning to play and circling wide down the sideline. Jordan cut quickly into heavy traffic in the middle of the court at the Bulls' free-throw line, sacrificing himself to the play, and--with a blank look in his eyes, glancing at nothing and everything--dished blind to Pippen cutting to the hoop to give the Bulls an 80-58 lead. They led another fast break moments later, with Jordan again dealing Pippen a wonderful pass. The Bullets blocked the dunk with a frustration foul, which only left Jordan and Pippen smiling at one another as they met at the free-throw line for a high five.
In the following game, against the Suns, Jordan and Pippen were at it again, to the point where, when Pippen was slightly errant with an alley-oop pass on the fast break--the most exciting play in basketball when it's performed correctly--it only gave Jordan the opportunity for a one-handed leaping slam dunk on the run. It was the play of the game in a very well-played game. By this time, they were working so well together that Jordan--who found that the Suns' double team was coming at a specific spot near the free-throw lane--drove to that spot while signaling with a shimmy of his eyes for Pippen to circle under the basket along the baseline. When Pippen's man abandoned him to double on Jordan, Jordan passed to a wide-open Pippen for the jump shot, which he sank effortlessly.
Yet the Bulls were playing too well across the board to allow Jordan and Pippen all the credit. The bench came to life and began to punish the opponents, just at the moments when--because Jordan and Pippen were sitting down--they thought they could get back in the game. Because of the physical demands on the Bulls' starting point guard, John Paxson, his understudy B.J. Armstrong was usually first off the bench, and he soon established himself as the team's most improved player. He pushed the ball assertively upcourt on the fast break, drove and dealt out assists in the Bulls' half-court offense, and--most important--when he got an open shot as a result of a double team, he hit it. Last season, Armstrong's defender could double-team the ball without worrying about Armstrong's shooting; not so this season. And with Jackson showing a preference to let the entire second string play at once, so that it could develop its own chemistry, it was Armstrong who set the pace. "It's just confidence more so than anything," he explained. "Last year was my first time playing in the league, with these guys, and running the offense, and I just feel more confident. I know where my shots are going to come from, and I feel more familiar with Michael and with the rest of the guys. It's a matter of confidence and relaxing."
That placed him in a unique position to help the newly acquired Dennis Hopson, who has already emerged as one of the team's critical players, both as Jordan's caddy and as the second unit's main scoring threat. By the game with the Bullets, Armstrong and Hopson were beginning to develop some chemistry of their own--nothing like Jordan and Pippen, but effective nonetheless. Armstrong explained his teamwork with Hopson, saying, "I'm very conscious of where he is on the floor, because he's a scorer, and with a scorer you've got to get the guy the ball to get him off early."
Given that sort of consideration, Hopson began to shake off the jitters, the desire to impress, that marred his play in the team's first few games at home, before the road trip. "Yeah," Hopson said, "you want to do well, and you're hesitant. And basketball is just--you just go out and play. It's just a matter of me wanting to do the right things, to get a feel for the offense and get a feel for what's going on. Because when you're on the court, you don't want to do anything wrong and you get to thinking," and he shook his shoulders back and forth in an exaggerated fashion to emphasize the point, "and you're hesitant--hey," which he punctuated with a shrug. "So now I'm just playing and if I make a mistake--so what. It's coming naturally like the game should."
What was most impressive about the Bulls, however, was that while they aimed to play "naturally" as individuals, as a team they played according to a clear set of tactics. That was the remarkable thing about the 155-127 victory over the Suns. The Suns, like most teams from the Western Conference, prefer an up-tempo pace, a running game of rebounds and fast breaks. "They continually tried to push the ball at us," Jackson said afterward, "to see if they couldn't get us in a running game, because they feel comfortable in that and they wondered if we feel comfortable in that--and we do. There's no doubt about the fact that we want to run, we want to push the ball. We wanted to run with them if they wanted to run."
The first two quarters were played at a feverish pace, with Jordan and Pippen excelling. The Bulls led 40-38 at the quarter and 69-67 at the half. The diminished second-quarter scoring reflected not a slower pace but simply more missed shots. The Bulls' cheerleaders, in fact, changed outfits for a special routine in the second quarter, but the lack of pauses in the play kept them off the floor until after halftime.
Shortly after the intermission the Suns showed signs of tiring, even as they tied the game at 75. Their center, Mark West, picked up two quick fouls, giving him four for the game and sending him to the bench in favor of backup Andrew Lang. The Bulls, sensing a weakness, abruptly shifted gears, bringing Bill Cartwright to the fore. "When Bill got foul trouble on West," Jackson said, "they had to make some adjustments. Their adjustments were such that Bill continued to hurt Lang when he came in off the bench." The Bulls, at one point, went to Cartwright three straight trips down the floor, and suddenly they had a 12-point lead. Stacey King came in to give Cartwright a blow, and he scored on two trips. Horace Grant, meanwhile, also hurt the Suns inside, leading the Bulls with nine points in the quarter. (After discovering vision problems during the off-season, he's finally found a pair of corrective goggles he seems comfortable with. They make him look as if he's stepped out into the lobby during a lull in a 3-D movie, but they seem to be working.)
The Bulls administered the coup de grace by bringing Armstrong back in for Paxson and resuming the game's former fast pace. Armstrong pushed the ball upcourt relentlessly until the final buzzer, at one point scoring on a magnificent bounce pass from Hopson in a tangle of players on the fast break.
It was a telling display by the Bulls, the perfect execution of a game plan in which they ran with the Suns, waited for them to tire, then went at their weakness, and finally used their deep bench to chase them off the floor. The 155 points set a regular-season record for the Bulls.
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Bulls' blimp broke free and, lifted by the updrafts from the overheated crowd, wafted up to rattle around in the rafters of the Stadium. When the crowd began to disperse it drifted down to the second balcony, where an usher pulled it in by the ring of its nose, but for most of the final period it was up there, bouncing back and forth, a symbol of the Bulls' season. The Bulls can rise to amazing heights. They may drift from time to time, but no team in the league can stay with them when they're right.