The day after the Bears lost to the New York Giants in the playoffs, the Bulls played host to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team they had just shouldered aside to seize first place in the division. It was the Bucks, and not the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons, who led the Central Division for most of the first half of the season. While the Pistons suffered from their usual slow start and then a succession of injuries, and while the Bulls stumbled at the gate trying to integrate new team members, the Bucks perfected their plodding, disciplined style and became one of the surprises of the league.

Last summer, while visiting Milwaukee’s County Stadium for a baseball game, I overheard an intense conversation between two sports fans seated behind me. One of them called Bucks coach Del Harris “the Whitey Herzog of the NBA.” The fan reasoned, “He never has anything to work with, but every year he takes his team to the playoffs.” Initially, the remark stuck because of how ridiculous it seemed, but the more I thought about it the more apt it became. It’s not a perfect parallel, but there’s something to it. Herzog, the former manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals, is known for his savvy and for his “carpet baseball.” He developed a reputation for building teams especially suited to play on artificial turf, which typically dictates crafty pitchers, quick fielders, fleet base runners, and, always, good managing–in short, baseball’s traditional fundamentals. Del Harris’s Bucks are not a running team–unlike the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers from the league’s Western Conference–but they are devoted to basketball’s fundamentals, to set plays run up and down the free-throw lane and back and forth along the baseline. There’s nothing prettier, in their style of play, than hitting someone wide open on the back door for a lay-in after he’s lost his defender on a pick. This is Harris’s style as a coach, and it’s made him successful wherever he’s gone; in the undisciplined NBA a team that runs plays on offense–like the Pistons or the Boston Celtics–is an anomaly and, usually, a consistent winner.

Harris, like Herzog, has always sought out players to match his style. If the Bucks had a nickname–like the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” or the Bears’ “Monsters of the Midway”–it would probably be something like “The White Bucks” or “Three White Guys Standing Around Setting Picks for Two Black Guys,” because Harris has developed a noticeable fondness for big, dorky-looking white guys who can set picks and cut quickly to the hoop. He starts white guys at all three forward positions, something that hasn’t been seen in the NBA since the 60s, probably, and by league standards the bench is remarkably well integrated too. One of the things that’s made the Bucks a strong team this year is the development of Frank Brickowski, a big, agile lantern-jawed forward. Like all the Bucks forwards, he sets an angular, spiky pick with his elbows, but he also is quick to the basket; most important, he has something resembling an outside shot and he rebounds well. When he’s introduced along with “small” forward Fred Roberts, who sports a crew cut, and center Jack Sikma, who often has his blond hair permed–all three with high cheekbones and angular faces–it looks as if the German Olympic basketball team has just taken the court.

What’s made the Bucks a team to be reckoned with, however, is their backcourt. Over the last few seasons, Harris recognized that the Bucks were a bit slow of foot, a little too predictable, and he went out and got some slick guards (who happen to be black) to invigorate the team’s play, even going so far as to trade former DePaul All-American Terry Cummings, a muscular power forward, for defensive specialist Alvin Robertson. It was sort of like Herzog bringing in a power hitter like Jack Clark to give his team a new dimension. Starters Robertson and Jay Humphries, along with sixth man Ricky Pierce, make up what is among the best sets of guards in the league, and they’re especially dangerous paired with the team’s big forwards, who play a very different game. Last season they were a bit like the front half of a lion grafted to the back half of an eagle, but this year they’re playing well together. They can crush an opponent in a half-court game with their patterned offense, then turn their guards lose in a running game. Through most of the first half of the season, few teams could keep up with their skilled and varied play, especially with Harris calling the shots. By the time they made their belated first visit of the season to the Stadium, however, the league was beginning to catch up to them. The Bucks had lost three in a row, and they needed a win over the Bulls to regain first place.

When the Bulls play the Bucks, what results is an extremely hard-fought game between teams of contrasting styles. While the Bucks set up picks, the Bulls set up their triangle offense, named for the configuration created by two perimeter shooters and a player with his back to the basket in the low post position. While the Bucks run their plays, the Bulls set Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen free to improvise within the triangle framework. Competition between the teams is fueled not only by divisional rivalry and the teams’ respective places in the standings, but also by the regional rivalry between the cities. (At this game Benny the Bull brought out a bogus Bucks mascot, complete with polka music and Tyrolean garb.)

Coach Phil Jackson later called this game “an indicative Chicago-Milwaukee contest. Hard play. Physical play.” Throughout the first half, the Bulls looked much more fluid than the Bucks and made things look much easier than the Bucks did, but Milwaukee scrapped away and battled through foul trouble; at halftime they were tied at 49. Pierce caught fire for the Bucks early in the second quarter, bringing Jordan off the bench to play defense after an unusually short rest. Then, toward the end of the half, they ran reserve center Danny Schayes on a series of pick-and-rolls, where he sets a pick for the guard, the Bulls’ center comes off to take the man, and Schayes rolls down the lane, takes the pass, and scores. It’s a play the Pistons have used to punish the Bulls, and the Bucks knew it.

In the second half, however, the Bulls shut down the pick-and-rolls, and Scottie Pippen got into the game. Against the Bucks, as against so many of the league’s better teams, a small forward is the key matchup for the Bulls. The Bucks start six-ten Fred Roberts at small forward, much as the Pistons play six-eleven Bill Laimbeer, and the bigger player creates problems for the six-seven Pippen. Once he gets into the game, however, his quickness can turn the other team’s apparent height advantage into a deficit, and that was the case here. “In the first half he was off balance,” said Jackson of Pippen afterward. “He had trouble finding space to shoot the ball.” In the second half, however, Pippen exploded. In one sequence, Jordan faked shooting a three-point field goal–shortly after having hit another–which drew instant attention from the Bucks, then drove to his left to the free-throw line. With the Milwaukee team converging on him, Jordan dished quickly to Pippen in the left corner. Pippen began his dribble like a steam engine spinning its wheels to get started, then roared down the baseline for a furious, crowd-igniting dunk that gave the Bulls a 90-82 lead with under seven minutes to play. They won comfortably, 110-97.

The game was marred somewhat by the officiating and the Bucks’ complaints. Humphries took two quick foul calls early in the second half, giving him four for the game and sending him to the bench. They occurred at what Tribune reporter Sam Smith called “a critical juncture,” when asking Jackson about the calls after the game. Jackson smiled and said they were “good calls. When they happen in front of the Milwaukee bench you know they have to be good calls.” They also happened in front of the press tables, however, and they were doubtful calls. The main benefit of them occurring right in front of Harris was that he grew incensed and drew a technical foul moments later. When Jordan sank the free throw, it put the Bulls in front 65-64; they would never relinquish the lead.

That sent the first-place Bulls off on their second major road trip of the season, a stretch with nine of ten games away from the Stadium. Last Friday they returned for the one home game, and though they won in what’s become typical fashion for them against the league’s weaker teams (they blew the Miami Heat out early, then coasted, 108-87) there was a marked difference in how they looked, played, and sounded. They remained in first place, a half game ahead of Detroit and three ahead of Milwaukee, but Jackson said afterward, “I don’t think we’re as strong as I’d like us to be right now. I’m not totally pleased with our play. There are too many lulls. We have to execute better in the closing minutes of the game.”

And Jordan, while he remained, as usual, longer than the other players to answer reporters’ questions, was uncharacteristically terse. Someone pointed out that the Bulls’ 29-12 mark was the best mid-season record the team had achieved during his career. But Jordan shook his head. “Being a division leader and the attitude it takes to be a division leader, that’s something we’re learning,” he said. “At home, we’ve been playing well. On the road, we don’t play with the intensity that a division leader should have. We’re lackluster at the beginning of games, we get behind, and then we’ve got to struggle to get ourselves back into the ball game.

“Hopefully, we don’t get burned in the learning process. It’s very possible.”

The note of pessimism, coming from Jordan, is a red flag. The Bulls spend no time celebrating their current position. They show no satisfaction in first place; they are looking to steel themselves against satisfaction. Jordan is making it clear at mid-season that, as far as he’s concerned, only the championship will do.