Two top Western Conference contenders for the National Basketball Association championship came to Chicago last week, and the Bulls–even without injured center Luc Longley–simply brushed them aside. They avenged an early season loss to the Utah Jazz in typical fashion on Monday with a punishing 102-89 victory that wasn’t even that close. Then they crushed the Houston Rockets, the team with the second-best record in the league, 110-86 Saturday night, winning in the same way they had the night before in Milwaukee against the Bucks: by turning it on in the final 15 minutes. The Bulls joined the Rockets and the Jazz in downplaying the importance of those games. Houston’s Clyde Drexler seemed to speak for all concerned when he said, before Saturday night’s contest, “There’s been a little to-do about this game, but I think it’s January, not April or May or June. So for the most part it’s just another game on the schedule.”

Yet Utah coach Jerry Sloan, the former Bulls guard, left town talking about how his team has to be respected not because they ever won a championship but because they haven’t and yet keep coming back–a rationalization if ever there was one. Houston, meanwhile, pointed to how they had been playing their fourth game in five nights. Chicago coach Phil Jackson chimed in on that point, saying, “It was evident in this case that our legs and condition, from having a few days off, gave good dividends,” and adding that the Rockets’ Charles Barkley “was exhausted out there tonight and played very tired. We’ll see a livelier player Sunday when we go back there”–to Houston, for the nationally broadcast game this weekend. It’s likewise true that these were mere midseason games. Yet the Bulls sent messages as strong and as assertive as can be delivered during the regular season. And they played without their starting center.

All things being equal and everyone healthy, neither the Jazz nor the Rockets can compete with the Bulls. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman give the Bulls the star quality to match any other team in the league, but what really tilts the scales in Chicago’s favor is the bench of Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, and now Randy Brown and Jason Caffey, both of whom are enjoying breakthrough seasons–if a bench player can be said to enjoy a breakthrough season. The Jazz have their strengths, primarily the enduring twosome of power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton, but otherwise Utah’s best player is shooting guard Jeff Hornacek, the sort of role player the Bulls have always been able to shut down when necessary (see Hersey Hawkins, Dan Majerle, Dennis Scott, etc). The Rockets have three of the best players in the game: Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Yet the Bulls in general and Michael Jordan in particular have long been able to befuddle Barkley and Drexler, and beyond rebound specialist Kevin Willis the Rockets’ bench is threadbare, which leaves Olajuwon to try to beat the Bulls all by himself.

That was the formula the Bulls followed Saturday: shut down everyone else and let Olajuwon have his points. Though there was a playoff atmosphere to the pregame festivities–the Bulls brought in saxophonist Arthur Scales, a playoff staple, to play the national anthem, and there were about 300 credentialed members of the media roaming around, more than twice the usual for a regular-season game–the play for most of the game had a tepid quality to it, and the crowd soon quieted to a dull murmur. At first it seemed the two teams were just feeling each other out. It wasn’t until Barkley pulled off a neat trick on Rodman with two-tenths of a second to go in the first quarter that either team showed much inspiration. Barkley did the old jump-while-holding-your-arms-by-your-side trick and the refs bit, calling a foul on Rodman. The Bulls were in the penalty and, what’s more, Rodman’s protests (he had to protest) brought on a technical foul. The Rockets sank the three free throws for a 23-20 lead.

Yet the Bulls opened the second quarter with Rodman, Jordan, and Pippen all resting on the bench. With Caffey playing aggressively, the Bulls’ second team fought the Rockets to a draw for almost five minutes. While the first half ended with Houston retaining its ill-gotten three-point lead, 43-40, the Bulls would prove to be the fresher team down the stretch.

Pippen rattled in a three-pointer to open the second half and tie the game at 43, and what followed was the best sustained basketball of the night. Jordan hit a turnaround jumper and a nifty little corkscrew layup in the lane. Olajuwon hit his patented baseline fallaway and also performed his whirling dervish act: spinning, faking, twisting–all with his pivot foot firmly set, almost as if he were a wolf caught in a trap–and then of course leaping to launch a lovely arcing jump shot through the net. He hit one over a Caffey-Jordan double-team to give the Rockets their final lead of the game, 58-57. (He would finish as the only Houston player in double figures with 29 points.) Yet then the Rockets’ fatigue suddenly showed. They completely forgot about Jordan on an inbounds play, and he circled out unguarded for a wide-open three-point shot and a 60-58 lead. It was as if the Rockets, having held themselves composed throughout a tense afternoon tea, had quite abruptly dropped cup and saucer on the carpet. Pippen signaled the start of the final 15 minutes with a stop-and-pop three-pointer on a fast break–63-58. Isolated with Barkley, Pippen then faked a drive and hit another three–66-58. Two Houston baskets later, Pippen passed out of a double-team to an open Kukoc across the court, and he hit the open three–69-62. Pippen added a baseline fadeaway of his own, and the Bulls led 74-66 through three quarters.

The only question was whether the Rockets had a final run left in them after playing three games in the previous four nights. They didn’t. Pippen and Jordan got Kukoc involved in the scoring, and everything caved in on the Rockets. At one point Jordan waved Kukoc out of his side of the court, then drove down the lane and found Kukoc, who had quietly sneaked down the baseline, wide open in the far corner for a three and a double-digit lead at 83-71. Later Pippen, idly dribbling on the outskirts near the three-point line, fired a bullet pass from the hip to an open Kukoc right under the basket for a slam dunk and a 91-73 lead. Jordan, of course, sank the dagger with a three that made it 96-79 with three minutes to play. The final score, again, was 110-86. Jordan had 32, Kukoc 20, Pippen 17, and Caffey 12, and Rodman accounted for the Bulls’ 53-35 rebounding advantage with 18 of his own.

Allowing for the Rockets’ fatigue, the Bulls’ victory over the Jazz was even more impressive. They plain and simple whomped them. The Jazz, though on a road trip, were as well rested as the Bulls, yet Chicago scored the first three baskets (time-out Sloan). Jordan’s first couple of shots sort of sidled into the hoop, but then they began to ram off the back rim and through the net. It was 14-6 and Jordan had eight, then Pippen hit a three to make it 20-8 (another time-out Sloan). Kukoc came in and swished a three to make it 36-20, while Brown was bumping, bruising, and generally irritating Stockton and taking him out of his game. After four straight missed Chicago shots and offensive rebounds, Jordan converted the fifth on a layup to make it 45-24, and when Harper hit a three the Bulls had doubled the score on the Jazz at 52-26. They cruised from there to a 56-37 halftime advantage.

Utah did have a run in it, beginning the second half with a swarming defense. Every time Jordan got the ball, two or three Jazz players ran at him. The Bulls, however, responded by going back to the old triangle offense, with Jordan posted up low with his back to the hoop, Kerr in the corner, and Kukoc out near the top of the three-point arc. The next time the Jazz ran at Jordan he passed to Kukoc for an open three, and he hit it to reinstate a 15-point lead at 74-59. On the Bulls’ final possession of the third quarter Kukoc killed the clock on the dribble, then drove on Malone into traffic in the lane and passed out wide to Kerr, who hit a three for a 77-61 lead. When the Jazz pulled within ten points with less than three minutes to play, Pippen went down on the floor to get a loose ball on defense, then passed out wide from his knees to Kukoc, who threw what amounted to a bullet touch pass to Brown streaking for the hoop. His dunk made it 96-85. Jordan sank the dagger with a 16-foot fallaway jump shot to give the Bulls an insurmountable 98-87 lead with 92 seconds to play. The final, again, was 102-89. Malone had a game-high 27 points and Stockton added 18, but for the Bulls Pippen had 24, Jordan 23, Kukoc 15, and Kerr and Ron Harper both 10.

Yes, these were mere midseason games, but what was most impressive about the Bulls’ victories was the way they altered their tactics ever so slightly to suit the competition: putting Jordan in the triangle with Kukoc and Kerr to combat the Utah double-team, then spreading out the offense in the late moments against the Rockets to keep them from swarming. On defense, the Bulls changed their man-to-man matchups continually throughout both games. This confounded the Jazz and the Rockets in the instant, but more important, it gave the Bulls a wealth of data to work with in any meeting in the NBA finals. The Bulls coaches can look at the game tapes, see what worked best, and perhaps surprise those teams again with tactics seen only briefly last week (say, by putting Kukoc on Malone or Caffey on Olajuwon).

The Bulls-Rockets game, with a rematch in Houston on Sunday, pitted the teams with the two best records in the league. Yet, truth be told, we’d be surprised if the Rockets–as they’re now constituted–made it to the finals. They’re too old and their bench is too shallow to get them through the grind of the playoffs. What’s more, the Los Angeles Lakers have recently improved themselves by trading the talented but erratic Cedric Ceballos for Robert Horry, a tall small forward with a dependable outside shot, a role player who was an essential part of the Rockets’ back-to-back championship teams in 1994 and ’95.

Was the Bulls-Rockets meeting a look ahead to the finals? “I don’t think so,” said Bill Wennington, Longley’s fill-in as the Bulls’ starting center, but with the proviso that even if the same two teams do make it they won’t really be the same teams. “The playoffs are a totally different thing,” he added. “That’s one thing that experience tells you, that you can’t compare any regular-season game to what’s going on in the playoffs. You’re preparing much more, you’re doing different things for the playoffs. The energy level, whether you like it or not, is higher in the playoffs.”

Over in the Rockets’ locker room before the game, however, Barkley was giving a slightly different and, as usual, a more forthright answer. Yes, the playoffs were an entirely different thing, but the regular-season games were important beyond their mere impact on the standings, especially ones between teams in different conferences who play each other only twice a season. “We’re all trying to get a mental edge,” Barkley said. “If they hammer us twice, do you think we’re going to feel comfortable in a seven-game series with them?”

Look for the Rockets to rally all their forces and use every tactic at their disposal this weekend–if only in an attempt to save face.