The standard offense of the Chicago Bulls is based on a series of rapidly forming triangles. The Bulls rely on outside shooting, and they typically deploy two players away from the basket with one under the basket on the strong side of the court, where they have the ball. Their strategy is to entice and exploit the double team, the standard defense of the National Basketball Association, where the zone defense is banned and where players are simply too skillful offensively to permit a stringent man-on-man. For instance, Michael Jordan might have the ball on the dribble near the right-hand side of the free-throw circle. Bill Cartwright might then be stationed near the basket on the right-hand side of the free-throw lane and John Paxson out wide, near the baseline and the three-point line. It’s Jordan in to Cartwright, and if one of the players guarding Jordan or Paxson collapses on Cartwright, then Cartwright passes to the open man. Or Jordan can pass to Scottie Pippen on the left-hand side of the free-throw circle, then cut down the lane and under the hoop, trying to scrape his man off against Cartwright or Horace Grant (stationed low on the right-hand side of the free-throw lane), emerging outside in the far right-hand corner of the court, creating a new Pippen-Grant-Jordan triangle. The Bulls can also post Jordan up or Pippen down low, almost certainly attracting the double team from outside and setting up Paxson or Craig Hodges for an open three-point shot. The Bulls don’t have the standard NBA lineup, with a big center and power forward: two big men to set picks for the little guys. They don’t have the personnel to consistently use the pick-and-roll or the baseline weave–two favorite tactics of the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls can use those plays, but they can’t rely on them. Instead they use their speed and quickness, sleight of hand, their skill as improvisers, to feint to one man and then seek the open player for the shot. When Cartwright and Paxson are shooting 50 percent, they are a very difficult team to beat, and when those players are shooting and Hodges is hitting three-pointers, they are just about invincible for any opponent.

The Bulls offense is also, therefore, more difficult to predict, more difficult to defend against. Simple as it is, this basic triangle formation has more facets than the typical play designed on a blackboard. The Bulls have dominated the Milwaukee Bucks in recent years, because the Bucks have fostered a team organized around the basic plays. They’d send Fred Roberts or Larry Krystowiak cutting to the basket on the back-door pass, and while that might work a time or two, the third time Grant would be there to pick it off and send the ball upcourt to Jordan or Pippen for one of their crushing dunks. This season, the Bucks traded away Terry Cummings, their power forward, for Alvin Robertson, a shooting guard, and they brought in the tall, thin Brad Lohaus to fill Cummings’s shoes, so they can sometimes go to a lineup of two big men and three scatbacks (with Jay Humphries at the other guard and Paul Pressey or Ricky Pierce acting as swing man), but the Bulls have still beaten them like a drum. Only the difference now isn’t tactics so much as the simple fact that the Bulls are better than the Bucks.

The Bulls, really, shouldn’t have had much of a problem with the Bucks, and, in fact, their first-round best-of-five Eastern Conference playoff series could well be over by the time this goes to press. The Bulls looked playoff-ready, having changed to black sneakers just as they did last year, which gave them a historic, newsreel look–Pippen especially, whose penchant for low-cut sneakers and low socks (little more than footies) made him look like the star player at a kids’ summer camp. Yet the Bulls also gave the impression they were holding something back in the first couple of games, and while that was easily explained–any energy a team can keep in reserve once the playoffs start is a benefit–it was also irksome, because it sometimes seemed that what the team was holding in reserve was its concentration. The Bulls won the first game 111-97, in spite of missing several easy layups. In the second game, they came out sharp, running their offense to perfection, shooting 63 percent in the first quarter, and when Jordan drove the lane and then passed outside to Pippen for the open shot, it was 27-10.

Coach Phil Jackson cleared the bench to open the second quarter, forcing the Bucks to expend their energy against the Bulls’ second string, but when the lineup of Pippen, Hodges, Stacey King, Ed Nealy, and Charles Davis sputtered, he called time out, then sent the same group back onto the floor. The Bucks scored 12 straight points, “and we had ourselves in a real good ball game,” Jackson said afterward. Jordan, Cartwright, and Grant all returned, but the starting group couldn’t regain its momentum; passes were dropped like cow pies. At one point the Bucks had a three-on-three fast break; the Bulls ran under the basket as if heading for cover and just stood there; then the Bucks got three shots, making the last one. King was in a funk. Posted down low, the two men guarding the outside shooters refused to double-team him, so he turned and went one-on-one with his defender; but he advanced the ball too far, allowing the Bucks’ defender on the other side of the lane to come in and swat his shot away. (This happened no fewer than three times.) At the half the Bucks led 52-51.

The Bulls, however, opened the second half with a couple of nifty plays, Jordan and Pippen cutting to the basket for layups, and suddenly the Bulls were ahead 55-52. More important, the Bulls instantly established that they could put a better group on the floor than the Bucks at any given time, and that it was simply a matter of not pissing the game away before the final five minutes. Here, however, the Bucks went to their scatback lineup, Pierce, Pressey, and Robinson, along with Lohaus and, in the middle, Greg “Cadillac” Anderson, the team’s designated enforcer. What designates him as the enforcer is that he looks it: six-foot-ten, 230 pounds, and with a face that–with its prominent chin and sloping forehead–has a profile like the front end of an automobile (although I’d say an old Hudson, rather than a Cadillac). This lineup gave the Bulls trouble, and the Bucks took a short-lived lead; there was no sense of rhythm to the Bulls’ improvising, no drumbeat or chord progression. They tied it at 70, however, and went ahead on a smooth play. With Jordan near the circle and Paxson out wide, Jordan passed in to Cartwright. Then both Jordan and Paxson scooted past Cartwright, leaving him to go one-on-one with Anderson, who’d just picked up his third foul. Cartwright made the 12-foot jumper to put the Bulls in front (he finished with 14, Grant with 15, and Jordan and Pippen with 36 and 32), and they held a 79-75 advantage through three quarters.

The game and the Bulls’ season–and the Bulls’ future as a franchise–tipped in the balance 20 seconds into the final frame. Jordan drove to the hoop, and the Bucks–led by Anderson–crushed him. He fell to the floor of the court the way Wile E. Coyote falls to the floor of the desert: face down, arms out, and with a flat, painful thud. The humor of the image is permissible now, because Jordan rose eventually not merely to return but to shoot his free throws, but for about five minutes the stadium was so quiet that the most noticeable sound was the photographers sitting in front of the press table dropping their plastic film cannisters on the floor as they reloaded their cameras. The Bulls later dismissed any thoughts of dirty play on the part of the Bucks and Anderson. “They were just playing hard,” said Jackson, while Nealy–who was on the floor at the time–added simply, “There’s no such thing as an easy layup any more. This is the playoffs.” Yet Anderson was suddenly on the level of the Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer as an all-purpose villain, and he became an object of attention. The fans gave it to him.

Jackson allowed Jordan to return after a timeout: “I asked if he wanted to come out, and he said he’d work himself back into the game slowly.” When he came off the bench, out of the Bulls’ huddle, to shoot his shots, he got one of the most exhilarating rounds of applause I’ve heard: the whole arena seemed to levitate for a moment. He missed one, made the second, and when Anderson missed a pair of free throws on the Bucks’ next offensive possession (after being hammered by Nealy and King), the place went wild.

The Bulls played inspired basketball over the next few minutes, opening an 88-81 lead, but the Bucks came back on three-pointers by Lohaus and Pierce and took the lead 89-88 on a Pierce layup. In the last pivotal play, however, the Bucks completely blew a fast break, Pierce fouled Pippen on the rebound, and Pippen made both foul shots to put the Bulls ahead for good. The next time down the court, Jordan and Cartwright switched places in the triangle, Jordan posting up low, and when Jordan got the ball he drew Anderson like a magnet and hit Cartwright with a pass for a wide-open shot from the free-throw line–good. When Jordan scored over Anderson with three and a half minutes left, Anderson went out of the game to thunderous applause with six fouls, and Jordan’s foul shot gave the Bulls a 97-90 lead.

CBS commentator Quinn Buckner said during the game that Jordan has the demeanor of a wizened old man. He sits back, stays warm early on, taking his shots but watching the other players do their work. In the end, however, he takes command. The Bucks closed once more, at 102-100 with a minute to play. Here, Jordan took the ball and the Bulls cleared out, leaving him alone with his defender, Robertson. Using almost all of the Bulls’ allotted 24 seconds, Jordan dribbled, faked right, faked left, went back to the right to the baseline, where Milwaukee center Jack Sikma leapt out in an attempt to trap him on the double team, but Jordan jumped–not looking for anyone to pass to–paused, hesitating in the air, and let go the shot, rifled with backspin, and the ball hit nothing but net.

After the game, I thought to ask Jackson, who has a reputation as a thoughtful, philosophical man, whether there is a mystical, Eastern attraction to the Bulls’ fondness for triangle formations, but he was busy with other questions, and besides, when one keeps in one’s mind the image of Michael Jordan–in that moment of utter stillness before letting go the ball–there is no room for triangles or anything else.