Scottie Pippen is an amalgam of extremes. Born in Arkansas and a product of the small University of Central Arkansas, he was nevertheless the fifth player picked in the 1987 college draft. He makes $750,000 a year playing for the Bulls; big money by Arkansas standards, but it’s among the lowest salaries for a starting player in the National Basketball Association, and it’s certainly the lowest salary paid to a player of his caliber. Once so unassuming that he would stutter his way through postgame interviews, he now can scold a teammate from across the free-throw lane for missing a defensive assignment, but he remains quiet and soft-spoken off the court. Sitting in his locker stall after a game, he wears wire-frame glasses and a comfortable, conservative outfit–slacks, shirt, and sweater–that looks as if it were taken directly from an advertisement in the New York Times Magazine; it’s his jewelry–a peace-sign earring and a gold “PIP” necklace–that catches the eye. He talks about preparing for this season–after making the all-star team last year–and how he reported to camp against the advice of those who said he should hold out for more money, explaining, “I worked out all summer; I put in five, six days a week working out. The organization noticed it,” he said. “I felt there’d be a reward down the line.” Then he finished, “When I think about it now, it’s probably the dumbest mistake I made in my life.”

Last season, during his third year in the league, Pippen became Michael Jordan’s foil. When Jordan seized control, Pippen was there to make sure he didn’t have to do it single-handedly. Pippen would come up with the steal; he’d take the long rebound and be out on the fast break alongside Jordan; he’d give–and receive–the alley-oop pass for the slam dunk. Left on the court while Jordan took a breather, he rarely seized control himself, seldom dominated play the way Jordan did night in, night out, but he was clearly the second-most-valuable player on the team, one of the new stars of the league.

Last month, however, Pippen suddenly showed a burst of dominant play–not coincidentally only days after he made an uncharacteristic demand for a renegotiated contract. He became the first member of the Bulls to score 40 points in a game in which Michael Jordan played (not including Jordan himself, of course), picking up a game-high 43 (also a season high for the Bulls) in a rout of the Charlotte Hornets. The next game, against the Boston Celtics, he finished with 33 points to Jordan’s 39, but it was Pippen who took command of the game early and Jordan who followed in his wake. Pippen had 13 points in the first quarter and played with such confidence that Jordan had to elevate his game to keep pace. He did, and with Pippen scoring an additional 14 in the third, and Jordan scoring 10 in the first and 18 in the second, the Bulls blew out the Celtics by 30 points and took the lead in the eastern conference, laying claim to home-court advantage in the playoffs, at least through the conference finals. (After whipping the Hawks by 35 in Atlanta last Sunday, they remain a game ahead of the Celtics in the loss column.)

The Celtics entered the game 40-14, the Bulls 39-14; both teams were in first place in their respective divisions, with the Bulls a half game back in the eastern conference playoff standings. Yet Boston also entered the game without Kevin McHale, one of their three veteran big men (along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish).

Jordan is always the Bulls’ most valuable player, but against the Celtics and a few of the other better teams in the league Pippen becomes their most important player: that is, Jordan is counted on for his usual 30 to 40 points, but Pippen draws the tough defensive assignment against the opponent’s small forward, and Pippen must win his matchup for the Bulls to prevail.

Pippen scored the Bulls’ first bucket on a lay-up over Bird, and from then on he was unrelenting. He went at the hoop every chance he got throughout a first quarter that Jordan later admitted was the team’s best sequence of the season. Horace Grant went down with a twisted ankle with the Bulls up 12-10, but Pippen and Jordan immediately raised their games in response. Pippen scored on a lay-up and Jordan on a mid-range jumper. Pippen then drove for another lay-up and, following a Will Perdue steal, scored on a tip-in. He rammed home a dunk on a pass from John Paxson and added a free throw on the play, giving the Bulls 11 straight points and a 23-10 lead.

The Bulls–especially Jordan and Pippen–have amazed Stadium fans from time to time over the past two or three years with their streaks, but this was something else. There was a feeling of vertigo to the sequence, of falling into the game; it all seemed preordained and inevitable. And it wasn’t over. The Celtics had prepared their version of the pick and roll–the Detroit Pistons’ favorite Bulls-killing play–and they had used it almost immediately to open the game, with Bird setting the pick and rolling to the hoop. They tried it again in an attempt to get their offense going now, but Jordan saw it coming, stripped Bird from underneath, and went coast to coast for the basket, making it 29-12. Instants later, he picked the Celtics’ backup center, Joe Kleine, clean in the lane and was immediately out in the clear at half court. He took one look over his shoulder, saw no one, and went for a dunk. A silence had fallen throughout the Stadium, as if a fuse had been lit and everyone were waiting for the blast. The dunk was explosive. It made the score 33-12, and that’s where the quarter ended.

“I anticipate very well against this team for some reason,” Jordan said afterward. In a game against Boston in 1988 he amassed nine steals–eight in the first half. Assistant coaches “John Bach and Jimmy Cleamons give us exactly what they’re running. We scout them very well and I’m more familiar with what they do because we’ve played them so many times in my career.

“When I first got here, they used to spank us left and right. No way we could beat ’em. Now, every time we face them it’s a challenge. I bring those memories, even though we’ve had good success against them the last couple years. You never forget those memories.”

Jordan, aroused by those memories, and by Pippen in the present, led the Bulls through the second quarter, with that most precise of plays, the inbounds alley oop, and an utterly new Jordan move: a drive down the baseline in which he leapt, faked a backhanded pass down the lane, pulled the ball in with his right hand, shifted hands, and performed a reverse left-handed lay-up.

At the half, it was 74-48. A middle-aged guy wearing a Budweiser hat who was standing in line for the men’s room summed it up: “Best fuckin’ half of basketball I’ve ever seen. How many times can you say ‘fantastic’?”

One more time. Late in the third quarter, Paxson made a steal and dished quickly out on the fast break to Pippen. He and Jordan went stride for stride, with the Celtics’ Kevin Gamble backpedaling between them. It clearly crossed Pippen’s mind that he might give the ball up. A week before, he probably would have swung wide, drawing Gamble, and arched an alley-oop pass for Jordan. But he suddenly lowered his forehead, picked up steam, and–protecting the ball from Gamble on the dribble as long as he could–leapt at the last moment, dunking over Gamble and snagging on the rim like a sack of mail dropped at a railway station by a high-speed train. It was, in its own way, a declaration of independence. It gave the Bulls the 30-point lead they would hold at the end in a 129-99 victory.

Coach Phil Jackson explained afterward that the Bulls sought to control the tempo to set Jordan and Pippen free. “It’s important for us to carry the ball at them on the move,” he said. “As long as we can change the tempo defensively by steals, turnovers, long rebounds, et cetera, we can run and we can do a lot of things where Pippen and Jordan are just overwhelming on the open court.”

“Our defense was our offense,” Jordan added. “Our defense initiated everything.” He went on to say the Bulls “are playing probably the best basketball since I’ve been here. This is what we’ve been trying to build toward. We’re at that point now where we are playing as a team.

“I just hope that we can hurry up and finish the season like this.”

That sentiment was echoed by Jackson, who pointed out that the Bulls had 28 games left. “That’s still a long run,” he said. “And we’re not going to go the rest of the way undefeated. We’re going to be tested–and we hope we are, because we have to be.”

They won again that Friday against Dallas, extending their winning streak to 11 games, but they were tested too well the following night, in Indiana against the Pacers. Yet they returned home last Friday for another test against one of the western conference powerhouses, the Utah Jazz. Falling behind by 16 in the third quarter, with Pippen sleepwalking and Jordan shooting miserably from the field, the Bulls again concentrated on defense to produce the offense. With Jordan driving to the hoop rather than shooting from outside, the Bulls rallied; the newly recovered Grant tied the game on a basket and a foul shot, and Pippen gave the Bulls a solid lead with a low, flat three-pointer that hit the back iron and ricocheted through the hoop. Not only did the Bulls come back to win; they won by ten, with Pippen performing the coup de grace with another three-pointer at the buzzer.

As Pippen said after the Celtics game, with a unique mixture of arrogance and humility–his voice low yet assured–“I kinda made a statement and I gotta kinda back it up.”