By Ted Cox

The Houston Rockets came to town to play the Bulls a week ago Wednesday in a marquee match: between them, these two teams have won the last five National Basketball Association championships.

The game turned out to be more like a mud-wrestling match than a battle of basketball champions, however. The Rockets looked so awful even their own coach said he didn’t recognize them, and while the Bulls were more sound fundamentally, from an aesthetic standpoint they weren’t much more impressive. Still, to beat the defending champs convincingly was impressive in itself, even allowing for the absence of Houston’s star shooting guard, Clyde Drexler, who had a badly bruised right shin. After all, even a team of thoroughbreds–as the Bulls clearly are right now–has to be able to win in the mud from time to time.

In fact, beauty is not what distinguishes this year’s Bulls from last year’s Bulls before Michael Jordan rejoined the team. Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc are both capable of playing exceedingly beautiful basketball. But Jordan supplies not only beauty but a mental toughness that’s somehow infectious. Maybe it’s simply the knowledge that Jordan is going to be there in the fourth quarter, no matter the score, taking whatever tough shots need to be taken that gives the rest of the Bulls the confidence to play well under pressure. Anything they can add to Jordan’s effort is gravy. In fact the two unmistakable marks of the Jordan Bulls, in all his eras, are a refusal to accept defeat on off nights and the steely will to hold onto big leads on good nights. Physically the Bulls are very talented, make no mistake, but those two mental qualities are what enabled the Bulls to enter this week 28-3, tied for the best 31-game start in NBA history.

Take the early-season game in Vancouver against the expansion Grizzlies, when the Bulls looked miserable. Every other team in the league would have tanked it, saving their resources for the next opportunity. But the Bulls–led by a Jordan explosion in the fourth quarter (he finished with a team-high 29 points)–rallied from two points down entering the final period to win 94-88. Or consider the time this season that the Bulls blistered Orlando in the first half of its first visit to Chicago, but the Magic’s talented array of three-point shooters jeopardized the Bulls’ double-digit lead late in the game. Led by Jordan, with a little late help from Pippen, the Bulls held on to win comfortably, 112-103.

After the tough game against the Rockets last week, the Bulls went to Charlotte the following night and blew the Hornets out of the building. Then they returned home Saturday to toy with the Milwaukee Bucks. They won both games by double-digit margins–and the game against the Bucks was marked by one beautiful fast break in which Pippen made an alley-oop pass with all the elan of a short-order cook serving flapjacks straight from griddle to table and Jordan shoveled the ball right in. Those games were larks compared to the win over the Rockets, in which the Bulls showed a mental toughness to complement their awe-inspiring natural abilities.

The game against the Rockets was just plain ugly. It took almost two minutes for the Rockets to draw first blood on a Mario Elie jump shot. After the Bulls answered right away on a Jordan drive and layup, the teams went three more minutes without scoring. Almost midway through the first quarter the score was tied at two. The Rockets seemed spent from having played the previous night, and the Bulls seemed out of sync, having gone three days without playing.

This is the sort of game Dennis Rodman excels at–with his high-stepping gait, he’s a mudder if ever there was one–and he provided one of the plays of the night late in the quarter. Trying to keep an offensive rebound alive, he tapped it up over one Houston player, then over another, and on and on almost out to center court. He looked like a huge, ungainly child playing a game of don’t-let-it-touch-the-ground with a medicine ball. Finally he snared it, turned, and hurled it to Jordan, who popped for a hoop to give the Bulls an 11-8 lead.

The Rockets starting team was off to a lousy start–even center Hakeem Olajuwon, who established himself as the best player in basketball (for the moment, anyway) during last year’s championship run. So Houston looked to the bench. The lively sub Sam Cassell, with his animated gestures and pouty mien, hit three of his first five shots–one from the three-point line–to give the Rockets an 18-15 lead at the quarter. Yet if Cassell is the sort of bench player who can take over a game, that kind of dominance isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The Rockets–like the Magic, the team they beat in last year’s NBA finals–employ offensive tactics so elementary that when they’re on their game it’s almost impossible to stop them. They have Olajuwon down low and several talented shooters on the perimeter. Once Olajuwon gets going, if the other side double-teams him, he can pass to any of several players outside for an open three-point shot. Yet these simple tactics can go hopelessly awry when the Rockets are not on their game.

Led by Cassell in the second quarter, the Rockets offense seemed suddenly scattershot. They were firing up the ball from all over the floor, and nothing was going in. This was the sequence that prompted Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich to say afterward, “We turned into some team that I just didn’t know or recognize.” (“I don’t know if it was our defense or their shooting in the second period,” answered Chicago coach Phil Jackson, “but it changed the ball game around considerably.”)

The Rockets made one field goal the entire quarter. Meanwhile the Bulls’ second team kept running the triangle offense. Despite sand in the gears they kept grinding away, and eventually they found open shots and convenient mismatches for Kukoc, who finished the half with 11 points (second only to Jordan’s 18), helping to lead the Bulls to a 47-30 lead at intermission.

The second half offered no relief for basketball purists. Not only did Da Bull, the team’s mascot, miss both attempts at a trampoline-aided slam dunk, Jordan and Pippen almost misfired on one of their patented backdoor alley-oops. Pippen did rattle in the errant Jordan pass, however, and when he was fouled and added the free throw, that gave the Bulls a 61-36 lead. Yet late in the quarter, with the Bulls still up by more than 20, Rodman pulled down another offensive rebound and immediately hurled up a wild three-point shot. It missed, the Rockets converted at the other end, and Jackson seemed incensed, as if he understood that such a lapse in judgment would have karmic consequences.

The Bulls led 75-54 going into the final quarter, but the Rockets instituted an aggressive trapping defense and began chipping away. When Houston pulled within 15 with just over seven minutes to play, Jackson–unwilling to let the scrubs try to usher the win home against such a high-quality opponent in such a high-profile game–went to his strongest lineup: Rodman, Kukoc, Pippen, Jordan, and center Luc Longley. They staggered, but when they needed to they kept making big plays. Rodman stuffed the Rockets’ Robert Horry on a slam-dunk attempt before sitting down to take a rest and get an extra ball handler into the game. Longley typified the Bulls’ stumbling efforts: he hit a big jump shot down the stretch, then let Mark Bryant gain position on a missed free throw, allowing Houston to keep the ball on an important possession. Longley finally fouled out, and Jackson threw Rodman back on the floor in the center position. Right away he pulled down an essential rebound, and Jordan sealed the victory when he hit a three at the other end to give the Bulls a 96-82 lead with 1:45 to play. The final was 100-86, Bulls over the defending NBA champions.

It was an ugly contest, but the Bulls were proud of their defense. Both Longley and backup center Bill Wennington commented afterward that the Bulls were able to change tactics fluidly, from moment to moment, on Olajuwon. Sometimes they played him straight up, sometimes they got help from double teams; the pattern was erratic, but they always seemed to know what their teammates were about to do.

“We played really good defense tonight as a team,” Wennington said afterward. “Defense wins games in the playoffs. Your offense is there, obviously, and you have offensive players, but your defense–holding teams down, keeping guys under their numbers–that’s what wins games for you, strong defense and good team defense.”

The Bulls themselves have been the first to say that their impressive early play–and even their entire 28-3 record–means next to nothing. Their talent combined with an unwillingness to accept defeat–opponents have to beat them, because they won’t beat themselves–have enabled them to cut a wide swath through the league. Yet they could win from now till late April, and it would only give them home-court advantage as far as they advance through the playoffs. Right now an abundance of talent and a little determination are enough to produce impressive wins over the likes of the Rockets and the Magic; only in the second half of the season, when other teams begin showing their determination to win even on off nights, will we begin to see how good the Bulls really are.

“It’s still a little early for that, and it’s a little hard, obviously, after the holidays,” Wennington said. “Within the next couple of weeks we’ll start battening down the hatches and getting things going….After the All-Star break is when you really start to prepare and start to be ready for the playoffs.” In many ways, the Bulls have been in that playoff mode from the season’s start and are waiting for the rest of the teams in the league to catch up, to show what it is they’ve been conserving.