A great hero needs to be offset by a great villain, and the temptation is to say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. Oh, there might be a Michael Jordan on the one hand–allowing him the more human-size heroism of the present day, as opposed to the mythic heroism of a Babe Ruth or a Joe Louis–but they just don’t make ’em like Bill Laimbeer or Rick Mahorn or, for goodness’ sake, Dennis Rodman.

No, they make them like Gary Payton.

Payton is a player it’s easy to dislike, and his great skills make it all the easier–at least for a Bulls fan. It’s not dislike as in personal hatred, but dislike as in how one detests everything he represents, his entire manner of playing the game and his unrepentant egotism–even as, more than ever before, he bends his purpose to the benefit of his team, the Seattle SuperSonics.

His coach, George Karl, said before their game against the Bulls last week that Payton has been less “spectacular” and more “consistent” this season than he’d been in years past, and “that’s the sign of a great player.” Payton, he feels, can adapt his tactics–shoot from the perimeter, post up close to the hoop, or drive and dish to teammates–to the tenor of the game and the opponent, making him the most valuable player on the team and perhaps, Karl said, in the league.

Yet Payton still has the shaved head and carriage of a gangsta rapper. (The day before the game he was accused of smacking around a Chicago chauffeur, a charge his agent denied.) He cruises the court with his jaw jutting forward and his free hand–if he’s dribbling–held fingers outstretched, in the manner of an old-fashioned Universal Pictures thug prowling the dark fringes of a streetlamp. Back in the locker room he talks out of the corner of his mouth (Seattle reporters know he rarely talks at all after a loss) and says he didn’t commit no last-second foul on Jordan, as if he were out to beat a bum rap. In all of sports, only Orel Hershiser of the Cleveland Indians seems more determined in every public moment to rub everyone’s nose in how good he is.

After 65 games of the 1996-’97 National Basketball Association season, it was great to have someone like that in town playing at the United Center.

If the Bulls needed a wake-up call, the NBA schedule supplied them one last week. After a series of patzers–the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and New Jersey Nets in a four-night stretch–they then had to play the Atlanta Hawks, the Sonics, the Indiana Pacers, and the Detroit Pistons in eight days. All are playoff-caliber teams, with the Sonics and Pistons clearly among the league’s elite. The Bulls were still without Toni Kukoc, out with a foot injury that must be given complete rest if he’s to heal in time for the playoffs. And the Bulls embarked on that stretch after a miserable loss in New Jersey–their first really atrocious and inexplicable defeat of the season.

Yet they recovered by swamping the Hawks 99-79 in Atlanta, and went on to brush aside the Pacers in Indiana and the Pistons at home (the oh-so-sweet 19th straight time the Bulls had beaten Detroit). Each of these victories was administered in a way that crushed the opponent’s spirit with the playoffs coming. Luc Longley, playing his best sustained basketball of the season, outscored Atlanta’s Dikembe Mutombo 14-4, fought Indiana’s Rik Smits to a relative draw, and poured in 16 points against both the Sonics and the Pistons, neither of which has a true center. The Bulls humiliated the Hawks, thwarted the injury-riddled Pacers in their bid to get back in the playoff race, and once again taught the Pistons that they’re mismatched against the Bulls–what with Scottie Pippen controlling the Pistons’ best player, Grant Hill.

Only the Sonics gave the Bulls a game; only the Sonics brought playoff tactics and intensity to the contest. It might have been ugly basketball, but it was the best sporting event of the young year.

“We weren’t prepared for the intensity they played the game at,” said Chicago coach Phil Jackson afterward. “And that was our mistake, not getting the guys ready as a coaching staff.”

Karl’s guys were ready with the best defensive game plan anyone has thrown at the Bulls this season. Karl had identified the very same “pinch points” in the Bulls’ offense that Pat Riley pinpointed when he was coaching the New York Knicks a few years ago. Yet he’d found a new way to exploit them. Like Riley, Karl had his team play physical basketball, putting its bodies in the way of the Bulls whenever they moved without the ball, throwing sand in the gears of the usually smooth-flowing triangle offense, especially in and around the free throw lane. Karl frequently double-teamed the ball handler and sometimes ran three guys at Jordan, while the other Sonics overplayed the passing lanes.

The Bulls have seen this tactic before and usually the triangle is at its best against it, as the Bulls find the unguarded man for an open shot. But the Sonics pressured the Bulls in the backcourt and frequently double-teamed as soon as the ball reached the hands of the Bulls’ point guard, be it Ron Harper or Steve Kerr, in effect putting pressure on the triangle before it got flowing. The triangle requires players to improvise within a framework that puts them in set positions from moment to moment, and Seattle was trying to catch the Bulls the instant they hit those positions, before they could improvise from them.

“They’re so quick that they recover very quickly,” Kerr said. “And they’re very aggressive on their traps. When they get up on you and trap you they get their hands all over you. And they’re going to give you a little push, and it’s tough to make a precision pass, a crisp pass. They’re so quick they’re going to steal it or at least disrupt the offense.”

The Sonics harried the Bulls into an atypical 20 turnovers, 8 of them by Jordan, and that chaos was exacerbated by the erratic calls of the referees. Jackson opened by assigning Jordan to guard Payton, and Jordan was whistled for two fouls in the first minute, the second one away from the ball. The refs then felt compelled to flag Payton on a couple of ticky-tack reach-in fouls, putting both in early foul trouble. They remained in the game, however. The Sonics had the better of it early, until Pippen got the Bulls going with a lovely baseline drive, flicking the ball up and in from well under the backboard–nothing but net. Then Jackson began changing the Bulls’ defensive assignments unpredictably, so that the Sonics always sensed there was a mismatch somewhere on the floor but could never seem to find it. The Sonics lost their offensive rhythm and the Bulls pulled even at 20, before Randy Brown’s turnover on their last possession led to a Seattle fast break and a 22-20 Sonics lead at the quarter.

The Bulls hadn’t seen this sort of game all season because teams rarely show their hand before the playoffs. If some NBA coach thinks he’s come up with a way to beat the Bulls he’s apt to save it for when it counts, which is also when the ambushed Bulls have minimal time to adjust. Western Conference teams, however, play the Bulls but twice a year–barring a meeting in the NBA finals–so they’re more likely to pull out the stops, especially in the second game (as was the case with the Houston Rockets in January). The Sonics had already lost to the Bulls in Seattle, and now they were out to save face. In the process, they wouldn’t mind showing teams like Riley’s Miami Heat how to beat the Bulls.

Throughout the second quarter the Sonics dictated the pell-mell defensive tempo of the game, and the Bulls kept struggling to stay with them. It was ugly, playoff-style basketball, and at halftime the Sonics led 46-43 even though they’d made just 38.6 percent of their shots. (The Bulls shot an almost equally woeful 42.5 percent, Jordan making just 3 of 11 shots for seven points.) In the second half, the Bulls struggled to pull even. Rodman was getting mugged on rebounds, but the refs weren’t calling any of it. Longley drew a foul on Shawn Kemp–his fourth–but missed both free throws to leave it 51-49 Sonics. Kerr finally tied the game at 58 on a long jump shot, but the Sonics claimed a 60-59 lead at the end of the quarter. The only point in the last two minutes was a Jordan free throw following a technical foul called on Terry Cummings, the old DePaul star.

The fourth quarter was vicious, and the refs complicated matters by calling fouls and makeup fouls. (Bill Oakes, Bob Delaney, and Scott Wall called the game as if one had money on the Bulls, the other had money on the Sonics, and the third had the under on the combined final score.) Longley of all people got the Bulls their first lead of the game by following a tip-in with a pretty drive down the lane–74-73 Bulls. Pippen and Longley then worked a give-and-

go, and when Pippen got blocked in the lane he turned and passed outside to Jordan, who swished the ball through the hoop for a 76-73 lead with less than two minutes to play. All seemed well. Pippen fouled out, giving Kemp some foul shots, but then Kemp fouled out, giving Jordan some foul shots, leaving it 78-75 with 34 seconds left. But Longley, trying to block Payton’s game-tying three-point shot, was called on a fingertip foul worthy of Hue Hollins, and Payton made all three free throws to send the game into overtime. Jackson was irate on the sideline, especially after Harper drove the lane at the buzzer and was smashed by Sam Perkins–no call.

Late in overtime, Hersey Hawkins put the Sonics up 86-83 with back-to-back three-point shots, but after a Rodman layup in the last minute the game became a battle of foul shots, with the refs calling everything at both ends. Jordan made two on a Cummings foul to make it 87-86 Bulls, then Jordan was called for a dubious foul on Payton, who made only one of two to tie the score. The refs then called Payton on an equally doubtful foul of Jordan with three seconds to play, and Jordan made both to win it 89-87.

The poor officiating left a bad taste in the mouths of almost everybody, but it rang true with the playoff feel of the game. What mattered was that the Sonics, unlike the Rockets, had shown the Bulls their full range of tricks yet had lost both games this season against them. They looked a demoralized, haunted bunch after the game. The Bulls, meanwhile, felt they had delivered a message–the attitude they also displayed after the wins over the Hawks, Pacers, and Pistons.

That said, the Sonics remain the most dangerous team for the Bulls out west–mainly because Karl has proved himself willing and able to tangle with the Bulls tactically, but also because the Sonics would arrive in the finals familiar with the media pressure that accompanies it. (The same could be said of the Rockets, but they aren’t deep enough to get through three rounds of conference playoffs.) Two things might stop Seattle: Kemp has been in a yearlong funk since losing to the Bulls in last season’s finals and doesn’t seem to be the player he was a year ago (while his points are steady, his rebounds and shooting percentage are both down; against the Bulls, he had 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting and pulled down just 4 rebounds to Rodman’s 17). And Payton, of course, is a punk–an immensely talented punk but a punk nevertheless.

In any case, the game with the Sonics signaled the oncoming playoffs sure as last week’s arrival of the first robins signaled spring. “I think the dog days were over at least a couple of weeks ago,” Kerr said, “even if we didn’t play that way last week” –muddling through wins over Boston and Philadelphia and losing in New Jersey. “We’re down to 16, 17 games left, so the playoffs are just around the corner. To me, the dog days are over.” o