It’s a dangerous time of year for the Bulls. Their position in the play-offs is secure, but the grueling National Basketball Association schedule grinds away for another two weeks after this weekend. That’s just enough time to allow the team the belief that it can coast awhile before sharpening its game for the play-offs. Thus, the Bulls of late have appeared play-off-ready from moment to moment, displaying sharp execution from time to time, but on the whole they’ve been mentally slack. The team has a tendency to drift for entire quarters. That’s not necessarily bad; it’s a long season, 82 games over six months, and if a team can get by for any length of time on autopilot it’s a benefit. Yet bad habits that establish themselves in these slack times can be hard to shake come the play-offs, resulting in an embarrassing early end to the season. Just look at Missouri in the college ranks: the team faded from the number one spot in the polls with a number of late-season losses, then fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament–from top to bottom in little over three weeks.

Missouri, of course, did not have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Pippen’s arrival last year as a quality starter, as a foil for Jordan, had fans of the Bulls dreaming that perhaps he was not yet completely developed, that perhaps he could raise his game another couple of notches to become almost Jordan’s equal. That dream remains unfulfilled–when Jordan is on the bench and Pippen tries to carry the offensive load, the team usually sputters rather than spurts–but Pippen continues to improve, and when he and Jordan are both on the court there is no denying that they play a style of basketball a cut above the rest of the team and, in fact, the rest of the league. Seeing the Bulls in a couple of almost meaningless games over the past two weeks, I filled a notebook with impressions of Jordan and Pippen working together.

A week ago last Tuesday, the Bulls pasted the Phoenix Suns. The score really wasn’t important. None of the scores these days is important; it’s how the Bulls play and how they work as a team that’s of interest. The games have taken on the feel of exhibition contests; they’re how the team prepares for the play-offs. On this occasion, both teams appeared sluggish at first, but then the Bulls–running easily–wore the Suns down over a long stretch of uninterrupted play midway through the second quarter. The coup de grace here was Pippen feeding Jordan from just to the side of the basket on an inbounds alley oop to expand the lead to 14, which is where it stood at the half. The Bulls then came out strong in the second half, and Pippen and Jordan worked the same play again to make the lead 20.

Watching these two play together is the main pleasure of seeing the Bulls right now. They are like a pair of brothers, with the older obviously the better, but with the younger emerging and with the two of them getting to know each other’s moves–where they’re likely to be, what they’re likely to do –so well that they perform almost eerily connected, as if only some inherent genetic tie can possibly explain it.

They have become the Bulls; they dictate the team’s style of play. As Coach Phil Jackson likes to point out, the Bulls run well, but they’re not a running team. They don’t have plays designed to take off on the run on the inbounds pass–in the manner of the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. Instead, they rely on the tipped pass, the steal (a category in which Jordan and Pippen rank one and three in the league) to spark them and set them off on the run downcourt. Jordan and Pippen can draw almost the entire team into this style of play, and against the Suns they did so, executing a series of long bombs to blow the Suns right out of the arena. John Paxson hit Pippen with an alley oop on the fast break–really, the most exciting play in basketball, the equivalent of the triple in baseball–then Jordan pulled down a rebound and passed long to B.J. Armstrong, who connected with Pippen on a touch pass for another jam. Then Jordan with a steal and–all alone on the Bulls’ side of the court, as the Suns just turned and watched–a mighty pump jam. Then Jordan with another rebound and a long pass to Horace Grant and a frustration foul by the Suns. The fans–apathetic through the early going–were wild with a standing ovation, and Grant’s free throws made it 92-65 and the game couldn’t end soon enough after that.

This performance–impressive as it was–was nevertheless a little deceptive. As Jackson pointed out after the game, “A team on the road has to make a decision, whether they’re going to throw everything into the works the very first game, and thereby expend that much energy in one game that it might not be possible to win.” Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons “relied on the second team to get them back in the game, and they couldn’t do it.”

The Bulls rely on their second team not to get them back into games but to keep them in games while Pippen and Jordan get a blow. It’s predictable that as the Bulls’ play has become more spotty in recent games, the rookies have suffered most. They’re more impressionable than the veterans; they can’t yet coast adequately. Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong (the most improved player on the team in the second half of the season) are either playing full speed or they’re out on their feet. Armstrong played impressively against the Suns. With the Bulls running, he looked not merely comfortable but aggressive pushing the ball up the court. King, meanwhile, entered the game sleepwalking in the first half. Yet in the second half he returned, got involved in the fast-break jamfest, and played well.

The Bulls’ performance against the Suns, it should be pointed out, was inspired in part by their embarrassing loss to the Sacramento Kings the weekend before. The Bulls were missing like a car that needs a tune-up that night: missing alley-oop passes, missing shots, missing any noticeable dedication to the game. They were laughing about it, too, figuring they’d pull it out at the end. The rookies failed to inspire the team, and in the final minute Wayman Tisdale hit a shot and Michael Jordan missed one, and the Bulls lost. “They brooded over the loss,” Jackson said, and they were sharp for the Suns, but against the second-year expansion team the Miami Heat last Sunday, Jackson feared what one reporter referred to as “another Sacramento affair.”

As a coach, Jackson is almost the exact opposite of the departed Doug Collins. He is calm and philosophical, where Collins was fiery and mercurial. The only thing they share is the limp that characterizes so many former athletes. (Both played in the NBA.) It’s Jackson’s responsibility to get the Bulls the best possible spot in the play-offs and then have them ready for the postseason. He is understanding of the Bulls’ slack moments–as against the Kings–but he remains watchful. “I thought about it even before the game [with the Heat] started. I talked to the players about the fact that this was going to be that kind of game and that it had all the earmarkings of that.”

The Bulls came out strong, playing an up-tempo game and looking fundamentally sound. They ran the fast break almost automatically: Jordan came down, with Pippen on his left and Paxson on his right, passed to Paxson, and Paxson, without pausing, stopped and popped–two points. The Bulls led by as many as 13 and held a 9-point advantage after a quarter. They slacked off, however, in the second period; it was as if, having honed their game and seen it in good stead early on, they could relax. Practice was over. The Heat, however, played with the intensity of young, talented players who don’t know any better. Rookies Glen Rice and especially Sherman Douglas caused the Bull problems, and suddenly, almost as in a dream, the Bulls were behind with eight minutes to play.

Jordan was having another good game, but he got almost no help. Center Bill Cartwright (who has not yet fully returned to the flow after missing a few games last month) and Paxson were both struggling with their shots. Jordan, on the other hand, was typically magical; he makes things look so easy sometimes, as if the ball were moving toward the basket of its own volition and it were only a matter of directing it correctly with a few taps and pats. Posted up down low on former DePaul star Kevin Edwards, back to the basket, Jordan showed Edwards the ball over one shoulder and then turned and tossed it into the hoop over the other shoulder, with all the effort of a man throwing a hat onto the top shelf of a closet. In response, Edwards could only follow Jordan back down the court, smiling at his back the whole way.

Still, the Bulls were down by five, 99-94, with less than four minutes to play. Here, thinking hopeful thoughts, I wrote in my notebook “Kings Redux?” Jordan again posted up low, and, getting the ball, he made a wonderful sky hook–yes, a relaxed, parabolic version of the sky hook, which, if it were a work of art, might be ascribed, “Jordan, after Magic Johnson, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” That position established, Jordan again posted up low on the Bulls’ next possession, after they stopped the Heat. He got the ball, and three Miami players collapsed on him. Jordan leapt, found Pippen open at the three-point line, hit him with a pass, and Pippen canned the long basket to tie the game at 99. Miami missed on its next possession, Jordan rebounded, pushed the ball upcourt, and passed to Grant beneath the basket. Out of a crowd, Grant rose, banked the ball off the glass, and put it through the hoop. The Bulls led 101-99, and they prevailed 111-103, with King pulling down some essential rebounds after Cartwright fouled out and hitting a pair of critical foul shots.

The Bulls well could have won the game with the Kings with the same sort of breaks. As Jackson said, “It hinges on such a fragile moment. Sometimes it makes very little sense at all. What builds up to that moment is what makes basketball–” and he paused slightly, “right”–“right” meaning correct, satisfactory, and, ultimately, satisfying.

The Bulls are building up for the fragile moments of the play-offs in their own fashion, at their own pace, with a patient coach, ever watchful, attuned to what he finds “right.”

The baseball season begins belatedly this coming week. Give me the San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, and Baltimore Orioles as division champs, with the Padres beating the Royals in the World Series. The Cubs I pick third, behind the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Cubs look to be improved, but I expect the pendulum to swing back this season, for fewer two-out RBI singles and for more unexpected problems in the pitching staff. The White Sox are a last-place team, but not without hope. Look for them to shuttle 15 or more pitchers through Comiskey Park this season and for them to enter heavily into the free-agent market next winter. That’s how they built a winner before, and it’s how they’ll try again.