The atmosphere in the Bulls locker room was anything but ecstatic after their 111-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings last Saturday. Throughout the first half of the season, the Bulls prided themselves on being a well-coached and efficient team, but they were now so out of sync that not even a 17-point win could hide it. Over in the corner, B.J. Armstrong was almost despondent, even after scoring 16 points. “I think for the guys who’ve been here five years this is–not to sound spoiled–this is a situation many of us haven’t been in before,” he said. “The coaches are just as competitive as we are. We’re frustrated about where we’re at. They’re frustrated, I’m sure. They want to win just as badly as we want to win. They’re trying to get things together with the team as much as we’re trying to get things together with ourselves.”

For the Bulls, a cozy home win over the Kings was simply confirmation of the dire straits they find themselves in. It raised their record to 25-7 on the season against teams with marks below .500, but their record against teams above .500 remained an unimpressive 14-15. What’s more, even with the victory their record since the All-Star break was only 5-9.

A month ago, the Bulls went into the break tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the best record in the Eastern Conference, 34-13. They were coming off a splendid 5-1 road trip, in which their only loss on a western swing came in a close game at Phoenix against the Suns, their opponents in last year’s NBA finals. Since then, however, they’ve suffered through a miserable stretch, at one point losing six of seven games and an almost unbelievable four in a row at home. Even after beating the Kings they’d fallen four games behind the Hawks in the Central Division and led the Orlando Magic by only a game and a half in the Eastern Conference standings, which determine the playoff seedings. What’s more, they led the Cleveland Cavaliers by only three and a half games, and if they fell behind the Cavs they would lose the home-court advantage in the first playoff series and almost certainly every series–if any–to follow.

Sure, the Bulls were suffering from a string of injuries–Bill Cartwright and John Paxson were both on the injured list, Horace Grant had missed several games with back spasms, and Toni Kukoc had been in and out with a sprained ankle and back spasms of his own–but the result of this rough stretch was a crisis in confidence.

All through the first half of the season, the Bulls established themselves as a team able to get the open shot and knock it down. Their selfless play and fluid passing made instant stars of Bill Wennington and Steve Kerr, journeymen who proved themselves capable of making 15- to 20-footers–if they were left unmolested. Yet when the Bulls were winning in December and January, there was no guarantee they’d get the same shots and continue to make them in March and April, after teams began rounding into playoff shape and contesting every shot on defense. When the inevitable bad stretch happened, the question was whether the Bulls had forgotten what they’d been doing right or the league had simply caught up with them.

Even the Bulls themselves weren’t sure how to answer that, which made their home-and-home games with the Hawks last week even more important than usual. A week ago Tuesday they indulged in a little playoff gamesmanship by letting the Hawks warm up alone for five minutes before making their own entrance. But they came out tentative; head coach Phil Jackson called a 20-second time-out in the first minute of play with the Bulls already down 4-0, and they went on to fall behind 14-4.

Jackson looked sick. He slipped into that increasingly familiar posture where he wears a hangdog expression, rests his chin in his palm, and curls his fingers along the side of his face. Yet the Bulls caught a couple breaks, a couple calls, and came to life. Kukoc came in off the bench and right away hit a running hook shot over Danny Manning, taking the lead in the battle between these two incredibly tough players to match up. The Bulls led 28-26 at the quarter.

The baby-faced, 27-year-old Manning–often touted as one of the most promising players in basketball but only beginning to fulfill that promise in the last couple of seasons–came to the Hawks in a midseason blockbuster deal for Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins is a two-dimensional player on his best days, and he has several years on Manning, but he had been in the Atlanta franchise for so long that the trade came as a tremendous shock to almost everyone–Wilkins especially. Both players are to become free agents at the end of the season, but the Hawks felt confident enough in the deal to throw in a first-round draft choice. If they don’t win it all this season, and they fail to sign Manning, that pick will be wasted.

But there’s no use denying it– Manning improved the Hawks immediately and led them back into first place in the Eastern Conference. This was his first game with the Hawks against the Bulls. He was a tough matchup because, at 6 feet 10 inches tall, he is bigger than most small forwards, three inches taller than Scottie Pippen. But not only did Pippen have the quickness advantage, it soon became apparent that the Bulls could put Kukoc on Manning with few consequences. With his slight height advantage (6-11), Kukoc was able to guard Manning in the low post. On offense, his ball-handling skills allowed him to drive frequently on Manning. Or they could post Kukoc down low on Manning, with Pippen free to roam.

On one such occasion the ball went in low to Kukoc. Pippen, coming from the other side, cut around a Kerr screen at the top of the key. Kukoc delivered the pass and Pippen knocked down the open 21-foot shot with the ease of a fast-break slam dunk. It was just like the Bulls had been doing the first half of the season. The Bulls led 48-47 at intermission.

Both teams opened the second half sloppy, but the Hawks righted themselves first, taking a 55-50 lead. They pulled out to 67-58, but then Pippen hit a sharp turnaround 12-foot jumper from the Bulls logo on the floor. That seemed to snap the Bulls awake. Pippen followed with a three-pointer around a Kukoc screen, and Armstrong hit back-to-back threes on fast breaks. Armstrong’s running jumper in the lane gave the Bulls a 76-71 advantage through three quarters.

“We got our hands on loose balls,” Armstrong said afterward. “We had 15, 16 steals”–19 to be exact. “And when you’re running in transition it’s hard for them to match up in a scramble.”

Pippen received most of the credit for the Bulls’ strong start this season, but Pippen has reached a point where he plays well night after night, win or lose. It has become Armstrong who seems to play well when the Bulls win and poorly when they lose. Jackson made light of Armstrong being voted by the fans to start in the All-Star game, and generally cut Armstrong’s time when Paxson was available, so Armstrong went into a funk–right about the time the Bulls began their ordeals, after the break.

With Armstrong resting on the bench, the Hawks closed to within 86-85. Then Jackson put in a lineup of Armstrong, Kerr, Pippen, Kukoc, and the newly acquired Luc Longley, with Longley expected to hold the middle and everyone else prowling for threes. Kerr hit one out of the standard offense, Armstrong followed with one on a fast break, and the Bulls blew the Hawks out over the last seven minutes of the game, winning 116-95.

“I know when I shoot well we seem to play well,” Armstrong said. “When I shoot well I give the guys spacing–I give Scottie spacing, I give the guys in the post spacing.” That’s because Armstrong’s defender can’t poach on other players. Still, Armstrong said this with a shrug, uncomfortable with the idea of being the team’s catalyst, perhaps because–like a true catalyst–he has a passive role in the reaction. With Pippen running the offense from the forward position, Armstrong is expected to park himself in an accessible spot and wait for the defense to forget he’s there. Opposing defenses, in the weeks leading up to those two games with the Hawks, had been determined to chafe the Bulls at what the New York Knicks’ coach Pat Riley once called the “pinch points” in the Bulls’ offense, but otherwise to play them straight up, man to man, no open shots allowed.

“The news of our death was greatly exaggerated,” crowed Jackson after the game, but Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens was equally adamant about how poorly his team had played–especially its failure to contest the Bulls’ open three-point shots. (For the record, they were 11 of 17 from long distance on the night.) Wilkens, who presided over the Cavs’ annual losses to the Bulls the past several seasons, went to the Hawks last summer because he saw a team that was neglecting its strengths in youth and speed. He added the full-court press to the Hawks’ repertoire–a press bolstered with the exchange of Manning for Wilkins–and he went to it frequently when the Hawks hosted the Bulls a few nights later. In addition, he started the smaller, faster Duane Ferrell up front instead of beefcake center Jon Koncak. This toughened the press and made it more difficult for the Bulls to get Kukoc on Manning. The Hawks slaughtered the Bulls, 106-77. It turned out the Bulls’ revival was as exaggerated as their death.

So when Sacramento came to Chicago the following night, there was nothing to be gained by the Bulls. The Kings entered almost smelling like the 21-39 team they were. What can anyone say about a team that wears black shoes in March because they’re not going to get a chance to switch to black shoes for the playoffs?

With Scott Williams scoring ten points over the apathetic defense of Wayman Tisdale in the first quarter, the Bulls pulled out to a 23-13 lead. The Bulls led by ten points or so–sometimes more, sometimes less–most of the rest of the game, until the Kings self-destructed with a late flurry of technical fouls on the way to a 111-94 loss.

Pippen, after not having a single assist the night before against the Hawks, handled the ball at point forward for most of the night and had a stellar game. At one point, he came down on a fast break, went up in the lane, held his left arm out to guard his body, palmed the ball in his right hand with his arm extended, and then–in midair–swung his right arm across in the manner of a bullfighter performing a pase de pecho for the lay-in.

Still, with Pippen dominating the game, the Bulls’ offense was prone to fits and starts. Jackson seemed to realize that, saying, “We’re not out of the woods yet” after the game.

Armstrong was, if anything, even more glum than Jackson, even after making 7 of 11 shots from the floor. “We need to be more aware of our personnel,” he said. “But that comes with playing with one another for some time. Unfortunately, time isn’t on our side.”