By Ted Cox

Throughout the first half of the season, most of the Bulls insisted that they weren’t a great team but merely a very good one. As recently as early last week, as the Bulls embarked on a six-game road trip leading to the all-star break, coach Phil Jackson maintained that the Bulls would be lucky to do better than 3-3 over that stretch. Yet by last weekend their secret was out, once and for all. First they matched the 39-3 record of the 1971-’72 Los Angeles Lakers by beating the defending-champion Houston Rockets. It was the first time in seven years that the Bulls had beaten the Rockets in Houston, making this a feat none of the Bulls’ three championship teams achieved. Two nights later the Bulls continued to an unprecedented 40-3 with a win over the Sacramento Kings. For the coup de grace, the Bulls went to Los Angeles and drubbed the heirs to the ’71-’72 Lakers; these included Earvin “Magic” Johnson, playing in the second game of his comeback after a four-year layoff dealing with the various consequences–both physical and social–of having the human immunodeficiency virus.

By that point humility came off as an unnecessary affectation. Still, to a man the Bulls maintained– quite rightly–that records are nice but an NBA championship at the end of it all is the only goal that matters. For most of the first half of the season we took pleasure in the Bulls for the beauty of their play and the force of their personalities, to the point where it came almost as an epiphany to be reminded that a sports team is ultimately judged by a very simple measure: win or lose. Entering this week at 41-4–after a frustrating loss in Denver ended their longest winning streak of the season at 18–the Bulls had established themselves as a team that had lived up to its almost boundless potential at the beginning of the season. Yes, the league talent pool was diluted through expansion; yes, the Bulls caught many of the stronger teams on the schedule conveniently after those teams had played a difficult game the night before; yes, the Bulls were playing with a playoff mentality while the rest of the league was simply coasting. But 41-4 is 41-4, and no other team in league history had ever been 41-3.

No matter what the Bulls do in the second half, no matter if an injury snaps a cog in their gears and ends their pursuit of a record 70 regular-season victories, the Bulls have established themselves as a great team.

But it would be a mistake, even at this point, to focus on the record at the expense of how it was achieved. With Michael Jordan, again the league’s leading scorer, and Scottie Pippen augmented by a ball handler like Toni Kukoc and a deadeye distance shooter like Steve Kerr, the Bulls have the offensive firepower to compete with anyone, including the run-and-gun teams of the Western Conference. In fact, the Bulls completed the first half of the season averaging a league-leading 106.9 points a game; none of the three championship teams ever led the league in scoring. That’s where most of the beauty is with the Bulls, with Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc running the fast break in an up-tempo game. More important, however, from a playoff perspective, the Bulls were fourth in the league in defense, allowing an average of 94.5 points a game. That is all the more remarkable given the Bulls’ fondness for up-tempo basketball. Of the other four NBA teams in the top five in offense, the Boston Celtics were last in defense, the Golden State Warriors were next to last, and the Washington Bullets and Charlotte Hornets were both below the league average. A team with a 41-4 record might well be expected to have a double-digit point differential along the lines of the Bulls’ impressive 12.4 a game for the first half, but NBA teams usually specialize in either offense or defense, not both. As talented as the Bulls are offensively, their defense has carried the team, especially against stronger opponents.

Defense was a hallmark of the championship Bulls, the element of their game they aped from the Detroit Pistons. Yet it is also something Jackson has stressed all along as an emblem of the champion New York Knicks he was a part of in the late 60s and early 70s. As Jackson writes of New York coach Red Holzman in his book Sacred Hoops: “Red believed that hard-nosed defense not only won big games, but also, and more importantly, forced players to develop solidarity as a team. On offense a great scorer can often dominate a game, and players frequently place their own individual goals of pumping up their scoring average ahead of what’s best for the team. But on defense everybody has the same mission–stopping the enemy–and you can’t get far trying to do it single-handedly.” The Bulls’ two victories over the Rockets were both ugly games as the Bulls, masters of beautiful basketball, dragged the Rockets into the mud and won on defense. Last week in Houston, Pippen alone committed 12 turnovers. Yet Kerr had 17 points off the bench and Kukoc 16, and once the Bulls got a lead in the second half they clamped down. Although Clyde Drexler actually outplayed Jordan overall, Chicago center Luc Longley and forward Dennis Rodman did a tag-team number on the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon that wore him down–Olajuwon missed five of his last six shots. And Robert Horry, the Rockets’ dangerous outside shooter, never got into the game. In the end the Rockets couldn’t get within ten, losing 98-87.

That tied the ’71-’72 Lakers at 39-3, and two nights later the Bulls broke that mark in Sacramento. Yet it wasn’t until they went to Los Angeles the night after that, last Friday, that they received their coronation. There, Magic Johnson was waiting for his first game against Jordan and the Bulls since the 1991 NBA finals. Johnson had returned to the court earlier that week, and although clearly bigger and slower at age 36, after four and a half years away, he remained a talented player. He’d set Golden State’s Joe Smith head spinning with a fake that allowed him to drive to the basket for an easy hoop.

Against the Bulls, however, it wasn’t close. Johnson now plays power forward rather than point guard, and Rodman tied him up. Johnson has always run the court in that flat-footed way of an old man, but suddenly he seemed really old, not just apparently old, falling awkwardly to the floor a couple of times late in the game. By that point the Bulls were beating up on the Lakers on both offense and defense. The Bulls led by more than 20 in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers had to embarrass the Bulls’ scrub-up crew just to finish within 15 at 99-84.

But 41-3 was as good as it got for the Bulls. Last Sunday they came out looking out of breath in Denver against the Nuggets and fell behind 31 points in the first half. Then they exploded offensively with 39 points in the third quarter, and briefly took the lead in the fourth before surrendering, tired and spent, down the stretch. If they had held on, it really would have been beyond belief. As it was, the loss left them 41-4, but still eight and a half games ahead of the Orlando Magic for home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs, ten and a half games ahead of the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division.

Those who claim that the Bulls’ record start is simply a matter of their two superstars having more talent than most of the other teams in the league miss the point. The Bulls entered the work week 41-4 because they are the best team in the league. With Rodman they have a stern defender and the league’s best rebounder. He allows their centers–Longley, Bill Wennington, and James Edwards–to lurk outside for short open jump shots. On the bench, Jackson can opt for either instant offense in the form of Kukoc and Kerr, or big bodies and strong defense in the form of young power forwards Dickey Simpkins and Jason Caffey and guard Randy Brown–sometimes alternating offensive and °defensive specialists in the closing minutes of a tight game. If Pippen and Jordan run on autopilot, fine. If they try to dominate the game and disrupt the tempo–as was the case against the Rockets last week in the first half–Kerr and Kukoc are inserted as pacemakers to run the triangle offense.

The loss to the Nuggets Sunday night did lay bare an old weakness: the inability to deal with large, mobile centers. Against Olajuwon and the Rockets, Longley and Rodman were able to largely neutralize the opposing center. But Longley suffered a knee injury in that game, and although he finished it he went on the injured list afterward. He was missed in Denver, where Dikembe Mutombo pulled down a game-high 17 rebounds and helped the Nuggets survive the Bulls’ comeback.

The one team able to play with the Bulls, at this point, is the Magic, which has Shaquille O’Neal at center. O’Neal, who missed the first part of the season while the Bulls were getting off to their record start, did not play in either of the two meetings between the teams this season. After the all-star break the Bulls and Magic will have a couple of weeks to round themselves into peak form before a Sunday showdown on national television at the end of the month. Before that is a key game for the Bulls in Indiana against the Pacers, who beat them earlier this season on the strength of a terrific performance by center Rik Smits. Those two games will show if the Bulls have a weakness, and if so, how serious it might be.

For now, we keep thinking back to the Bulls’ recent visit to Toronto to play the expansion Raptors. It was another ugly, defense-minded game, with the Bulls falling behind and then struggling back to claim a one-point lead in the final minute. Then the Bulls made a pass to Rodman under the hoop; he drew the defense and selflessly passed outside to a wide-open Longley, who calmly knocked down the jump shot to give the Bulls a three-point lead. After a defensive stop the Bulls came down with a chance to ice the game, and Jordan took it on himself, one-on-one against Alvin Robertson, dribbling the ball between his legs as if he were doing the basketball version of Muhammad Ali’s boxing shuffle, then rising up and–with Robertson’s hand in his face– sinking the long jump shot as TV announcer Wayne Larrivee said simply, “The dagger!”

The Bulls have the best-rounded roster in the league, and the one guy who can close out a game like no other. A record like 41-3 doesn’t just happen, no matter how good a run of luck a team has.