The first two rounds of the NBA playoffs could hardly have gone better for the Bulls, either in their own series or elsewhere in the league. To start, the Bulls dispatched the young, intense, and intensely stupid Washington Bullets in three games. Meanwhile, the athletic and dangerous Atlanta Hawks needed the full five games to get past the Detroit Pistons, so they arrived in Chicago for the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals with only a day’s rest. The Bulls quickly stepped up their level of play and sent the Hawks home in five games, while the New York Knicks and Miami Heat were beating each other up in the other Eastern Conference semifinal. (Those who said the Bulls would be better off with the Heat and Knicks in the same bracket and the Bulls and Hawks in the other were right all along.) The Knicks took a 3-1 lead on the Heat and appeared ready to finally test the Bulls to the best of both teams’ abilities, but then they got involved in a bench-clearing brouhaha, resulting in six suspensions–five on the Knicks.

With the league’s help, the Heat rallied to nip the Knicks in seven games, meaning that, again, the Bulls’ next opponent had only one day’s rest. Meanwhile, in the Western semis, the Utah Jazz was coasting into the conference finals with a five-game win over the brain-dead Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers, while the Houston Rockets were being taken to seven games by the Seattle SuperSonics, the team that lost to the Bulls in the NBA finals last year. This gave the Jazz a tremendous advantage on the Rockets, and the Bulls would much rather play the Jazz–a big, slow, and predictable team that has never been to the NBA finals before–than the Rockets, a shallow but talented and experienced team that won the only two championships the Bulls didn’t over the previous six years, a team that has now added Charles Barkley to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

The Heat is a dangerous team–in many ways more dangerous than the Knicks, especially at point guard with Tim Hardaway–but Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the Bulls’ deep bench should prevail, especially since the suspensions of the last series should result in increased scrutiny, depriving Miami coach Pat Riley of his preferred style of physical defensive play. At that point it really doesn’t matter who else makes it to the finals. Utah may have John Stockton and Karl Malone, but they’re still an inexperienced team from a small city. They’ll find it takes at least a game or two to adjust to the heightened media pressure, like the Sonics, Phoenix Suns, and Portland Trail Blazers found before them (not to mention the Bulls, who lost their first NBA finals game to the experienced Los Angeles Lakers in 1991). If the Rockets win, their starters–especially Olajuwon, Drexler, and Barkley, who carry the heavy lumber–should be so spent that the Bulls should prevail on bench strength alone, especially if the Western finals go seven games. In short, for the first time this season a judicious fan can say, with some confidence, that the Bulls not merely should win but will win the 1997 NBA championship. At the risk of putting the whammy on the Bulls in the two games between writing and publication, from here on out it’s academic–knock on wood and barring injuries.

Aside from the star-crossed injuries that afflicted the Bulls this year and the dark clouds that occasionally dumped on Dennis Rodman, the Bulls have seen the planets align in favor of their fifth title and second in a row. The Bullets proved to be a perfect sparring partner. They were a team so dumb–from the coach on down to the towel boy at the end of the bench–they were immune to tactics. Had the Bulls tried to confound them with media mind games and an array of defenses, it would have been like a flimflam man trying to swindle an idiot. The Bullets played one-on-one basketball, and the only way to beat the Bulls–what with the newly recovered Rodman and Toni Kukoc working themselves back into sync–was one-on-one with Jordan and Pippen.

The Bulls led by single digits late in the first game, until Pippen pulled down a rebound, dribbled out with a little stutter-step change of pace to throw off the Bullets pursuing him, pulled up at the three-point line, drawing all attention to himself, and then swung the ball left to Steve Kerr, who popped a three to make it 85-73. Then it was Jordan over Tim Legler, 87-73, then Jordan over Calbert Cheaney, 89-74, and the final was 98-86. Jordan continued at that pace in the second game, dumping 55 points on the Bullets–including two on a baseline drive ending in that spread-eagle, arms-outstretched (tongue too) Nike-logo pose that even TV announcer Marv Albert said he hadn’t seen from Jordan in years–and carrying the Bulls almost single-handedly in the fourth quarter to a 109-104 victory. The image of the game was the pleasant little splash of the net Jordan’s shots seem to make when he’s on and they’re plopping right into the middle of the hoop. In Washington for the finale, it came down to the last shot, the Bulls trailing, and the ball, of course, in Jordan’s hands. The ball went up, up, then dropped right into the lap of Pippen at the three-point line; he seized it, drove the baseline, and rattled in a bone-crunching slam dunk that was still knocking back and forth through the rim as he was being pile-driven into the floor.

Pippen, in fact, was having his best playoff run since 1993, when he stepped up behind the distracted, disaffected Jordan (in a funk, on the floor and off, due to a media to-do over gambling charges) and led the Bulls past the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. Against the Hawks, he would prove to be the Bulls’ critical player at both ends. He was expected to take the Hawks’ Tyrone Corbin (yes, the 34-year-old former DePaul star) to school on offense, and he did, scoring 20 points in three of the five games and 17 and 15 in the others. On defense, he switched from Corbin over to Steve Smith beginning with the third game, in Atlanta, and it was the critical adjustment of the series. Smith had been posting up Ron Harper in the first two games, but with the taller, more fearsome Pippen on him Smith’s offense dried up. Harper, meanwhile, switched over to Atlanta point guard Mookie Blaylock, who had been tiring Jordan by running him through screens in the first two games, especially the second, when Blaylock made eight of nine shots from three-point range and finished with 26 points. Blaylock’s dead-eye shooting also discouraged Jordan from poaching on defense. Yet the six-foot-six Harper smothered Blaylock’s outside shot, and Jordan, switched over to cover the perimeter shooter Corbin, was again able to roam the defensive end like a hungry wolf.

Here was the story in numbers. The Bulls were still out of sync in the first game, but Jordan scored 20 points in the third quarter on the way to 34 overall to lead the team to a 100-97 victory, with Pippen providing the margin of victory with a clutch three-pointer in the final minute–the only points either team scored in the final 150 seconds. Blaylock had his 26 and Smith had 27 as the Hawks won the second game 103-95. After that, however, Smith would make only 10 of 40 shots in the final three games of the series, with Pippen on him most of the time, and Blaylock would make just 10 of 29 in the two games in Atlanta–both, of course, won by the Bulls. The Bulls’ bench won the third and fifth games, with Kukoc and newcomer Brian Williams (noticeably absent in the second half of the second game with a knee injury) combining for 30 points in the third game, then those two joining Kerr and the newly revitalized Rodman (on fire from three-point range, much to the crowd’s delight at the United Center) for 46 points in the fifth. In between, Jordan and Pippen won the fourth, combining for 53 points as the only two Bulls to reach double figures.

Here was the story in images. Atlanta center Dikembe Mutombo blocked a Randy Brown layup in the first game and turned to the reporters seated behind the basket and waved his finger, “No, no, no.” The important distinction to be made here is that if a player wags his finger at another player it’s considered taunting, resulting in a technical foul. Mutombo made another block in the third game and again turned away to wag his finger, neglecting that the ball was still in play. Pippen scooped it up and jammed it through the hoop. In the finale, Jordan drove the baseline and performed an in-your-face dunk over Mutombo. “Back at All-Star weekend, we were joking with one another, and he said I’d never dunk on him,” Jordan said afterward. “I said, ‘I’ll eventually get you before I leave the game,’ and that was a great time for it.” Jordan waved his finger right in Mutombo’s face, accepted the technical foul, and went on to lead the Bulls to the clinching win with 24 points.

Just as the Bullets provided the Bulls with a physical test when they needed to work themselves back into shape, the Hawks provided the Bulls with a mental test just when they needed to prepare for the warfare–physical and psychological–with Riley and the Heat. The Hawks were a smart team, well coached by Lenny Wilkens, and it took self-assurance and that critical defensive adjustment to beat them. (Alas poor Lenny, the former Cleveland Cavaliers coach, who found himself summing up the season at the media-room podium in Chicago after yet another playoff loss to the Bulls, and who again had to remind reporters, “I’m not here to dissect the Bulls.” How many times has he ended the year with that same bitter smile pressed to his face? Five, by my count.) They were also a composed team, led by the unflappable point guard Blaylock, who made such a noble impression after the second game, when he sat in his locker stall and calmly answered question after question about how the team (not he alone) had beaten the Bulls to seize home-court advantage (for a game, anyway), all without a hint of boasting or beating his chest. For that night he seemed, in many ways, the epitome of death for the Bulls, come to claim them after so many years and so many triumphs. It wasn’t to be, however. Death was turned away again, with nothing left in front of the Bulls but figures that are all too human.