By Ted Cox

Shaquille O’Neal of the Orlando Magic put up a shot early in the fourth quarter against the Bulls a week ago last Sunday, but with Luc Longley playing tough one-on-one defense it came down short. Michael Jordan pulled in the rebound and dribbled straight out, with both Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc ahead on the wings. The Magic players fell back as fast as they could, and as Jordan picked up speed crossing the half-court line it looked as if he would force the issue in a three-on-three break. But Jordan abruptly swung the ball left to Steve Kerr trailing the play all alone at the three-point line. As two backpedaling Magic players rapidly reversed their direction and ran at him, Kerr got the shot off. And as the entire crowd rose as one he nailed it, hard off the back rim and through the hoop. That gave the Bulls a 94-79 lead with less than six minutes to play, and it sealed the game, the Magic folding up camp like a caravan of carny barkers on Sunday night. It was pure pandemonium in the stands, and as Orlando coach Brian Hill called time-out and the Luv-a-Bulls took the floor to do their crisp and classic “That’s What I Like About You” routine, the United Center felt more like the old Chicago Stadium than ever before.

The Bulls blew out of their February doldrums with two impressive victories in big games against Eastern Conference rivals: 111-91 against the Magic and, the Sunday before, 110-102 against the Pacers in Indianapolis. They mopped up the month with an easy win over Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, then burst into March with a pair of victories that left them in giddy good spirits going into this week, with the end of the season suddenly in sight. By then, the Bulls were fourteen and a half games ahead of the Pacers in the Central Division, nine ahead of the Magic in the Eastern Conference, and even six and a half ahead of the Seattle SuperSonics, the best team in the West, giving them a strong hold on home-court advantage through the playoffs. “We’re just motoring along,” Jordan said Saturday night, after the Bulls crushed the Boston Celtics 107-75. “I’m pretty sure the countdown’s going to start.”

“The countdown,” of course, refers to the Bulls’ pursuit of a record 70 regular-season victories. The Bulls entered the week 52-6, meaning that they needed only to play .750 ball the final 24 games, or 18-6, to do it. Never mind that up to that point only one other National Basketball Association team, the Sonics, had won three-quarters of its games; when a team is 52-6, playing .897 ball, and has 13 of its final 24 games at home, where it is undefeated, 70 wins begins to look like a fait accompli.

Best of all, though the Bulls–Pippen and Jordan foremost among them–were nursing nagging injuries and enduring occasional bouts of fatigue, they appeared to have plenty in reserve, in both stamina and tactics. Despite missing two of their best players, Dino Radja and Dee Brown, out with injuries, the Celtics stayed within ten points of the Bulls for most of the first half of Saturday night’s game. Then Dennis Rodman, while trying to save a ball going out of bounds under the Boston basket, made a bad pass that Rick Fox converted into two points. Rodman was so irked he threw the ball against the base of the basket, resulting in a delay-of-game call. As a form of tension release coach Phil Jackson then loosed the dogs on the Celtics, and it was as if some rumply peddler was being chased down a dirt road in a roiling cloud of dust. The Bulls threw a ten-point mindfuck at them in the final two minutes, using a full-court press to force three steals that led directly to eight points (including three-point plays by both Jordan and reserve guard Randy Brown). Jackson sat smiling on the bench like a moonshiner who never even had to lift the shotgun from his lap. It was 57-39 at intermission, and that game was over.

“Phil is the kind of guy, he doesn’t want to show his cards too early,” Jordan said afterward. “He likes to conserve some of his cards. We may practice [the press] in practice, but as for us doing it in the games he may hold off until we need it in the playoffs.”

The best thing, then, about the convincing win over the Magic was that Jackson and the Bulls were able to keep their cards hidden. They deployed no new double-teaming scheme against center O’Neal and no new full-court press against point guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway; they simply put Longley on O’Neal and Pippen on Hardaway and went about the business of beating the Magic in man-to-man hand-to-hand combat. The Magic is a team with a dominating low-post center and a dazzling array of deadeye outside shooters. They typically pass the ball in to O’Neal, who either goes to the hoop or, if double-teamed, passes out to the open man for the jump shot. In last season’s conference semifinals the Bulls chose to double-team O’Neal and leave Horace Grant open, and Grant killed them. A double-team is what the Magic expects, and if it’s not Grant hitting the open shot it’s Dennis Scott or Nick Anderson or Brian Shaw. So leave it to Jackson, the Zen master, to throw a mindfuck at Orlando that was really no mindfuck at all.

There was a playoff feel in the stands and in the locker rooms before the game; the seats filled early and the locker rooms were all but empty. The two teams had split their previous two meetings this season, with each winning at home, but O’Neal had missed both games with a broken thumb suffered in the preseason. In the media Orlando was full of piss and vinegar about how the Bulls had piled up their impressive record against a league watered down by expansion, and now with Shaq back the Magic was ready to reassert its dominance in the Eastern Conference.

Both teams came out shooting well. The Magic led 30-28 after one quarter, with O’Neal and Hardaway combining for 20 points. Trailing 31-30, the Bulls then claimed the lead on three straight three-pointers by Kukoc, each from the same spot on the floor, about four o’clock as one faced the basket from the free-throw line. Once Kukoc even dribbled back a step to get to that spot behind the line. The Magic rallied to tie the game at 53 at the half, but while O’Neal and Hardaway had combined for 34, Grant, Scott, and Anderson had a measly 15 points total, which meant only four from the bench. While Jordan led the Bulls with 13, Kukoc added 9 off the bench, Pippen also had 9, Longley 8, and even Ron Harper 7. The Bulls, for a change, were the team with scoring balance.

It was in the third quarter that the Bulls won the game. They slowed the tempo, dragged the Magic into the trenches, and whipped them in the mud. Aside from one play in which Jordan blew past Hardaway down the baseline for a slam dunk over Grant, it was an ugly 12 minutes of basketball. Yet it left the Magic frustrated and dispirited, not unlike George Foreman in his “rope-a-dope” championship fight against Muhammad Ali. The Magic kept pounding the ball in to O’Neal, and the Bulls kept taking the punishment. O’Neal had 13 points in the quarter, but with Pippen finally wearing down Hardaway the Magic scored only 17 overall. The Bulls, meanwhile, scored 21 to take a 74-70 lead into the fourth quarter.

And then Kukoc went off like fireworks at the end of a rainy Fourth of July.

Both Jordan and Pippen had played the entire third quarter, and Jackson left them on the bench to start the fourth, sending Kukoc out with a group that included Rodman, Harper, Kerr, and Bill Wennington. “Toni has a tendency to play big in big games and has always been a big-game player for us,” Jackson explained later. “In a game like this, mom’s watching back in Croatia. He has a lot of reputation at stake.”

Yet not even Jackson could have expected what Kukoc did. He opened driving aggressively and hitting a short turnaround bank shot. Rodman, on his Channel Five Sports Sunday appearance that night, said Kukoc was crying out in his fragmented English, “Gimme de ball, gimme de ball!” He then hit three straight three-pointers on consecutive trips down the court. The Magic also scored on three straight possessions, but with Kukoc hitting threes the Bulls’ lead went from four to start the period to nine barely two minutes into it. Rested, Jordan and Longley came off the bench, soon followed by Pippen. Where the Bulls had slowed the tempo for most of the third quarter, they suddenly shifted into high gear, and they left the Magic spinning their wheels. Hardaway was increasingly frustrated, taking his anger out on the refs, while O’Neal almost literally lost his shorts when the drawstring broke. Fans saw him throw the string away as he stood at the free-throw lane for some Chicago foul shots, and then they burst into hoots, whistles, and catcalls when he went jogging up the court, clutching his pants at the waist like some incontinent old man. He changed on the bench and reentered the game, whose final score was no less humiliating, 111-91.

Orlando’s coach tried to put a game face on it. “They played defense the way we anticipated,” Hill said. “They just played it real good. I didn’t expect them to come and double Shaquille. I expected them to try to go one-on-one and close down Anderson and Scott.” That was clearly a load of bull, Hill trying to talk himself into some courage, because only two nights before the Bulls had suffered their sixth loss of the season while using that same old double-teaming strategy against the Miami Heat. Journeyman Rex Chapman burned them for 39 points in that game, hitting nine of ten shots from three-point range, and at no time did the Bulls show that they had anything else in their arsenal. (The stay-at-home strategy against the Magic was apparently formulated in practice the following day.) Hill admitted, “We saw much fewer double-teams than we usually see, and that’s really what opens up the three-point shot for us. That’ll be something we’ll address and be ready for next time.” Yet he was much less specific about how the Magic would prepare for the final regular-season rematch, in April. “I don’t want to make statements about how to guard my own basketball team,” Hill said. Clearly, when a team gets beat not on complex tactics but on simple man-to-man basketball, there isn’t much a coach can do. And that’s what has Hill worried.

Over in the Bulls’ locker room, a remarkably pleasant and smiling Kukoc was asked if he had been “in a zone.” “That’s what players call it here when they’re hitting their shots,” he answered. And what did he call it? “A good day,” he said matter-of-factly. He seemed more comfortable and friendly than ever, so it came as a surprise to read in the next day’s papers that Jordan and Pippen had prevailed on him to stay and talk with the media after his best game of the season; otherwise he would have bolted out, as usual, as soon as possible.

Kukoc has a reputation as something of a cold fish, which means only that sportswriters rarely rein in their criticism of him. They don’t worry about staying on the good side of a player who apparently has no good side where the media are concerned. He is an erratic player, skittish as a colt, and he will never be a fearsome defender. Still, he has gotten much better this year at switching off on defense (a trait rarely noted in the papers), and while his average stats are down across the board from a year ago, when he was the starting power forward instead of the sixth man (first off the bench), by minutes they are nevertheless up. His overall comfort level is perhaps best suggested by his improved free-throw percentage. When he scored 23 points in each of the next two games after Orlando, his success sent us back to a conversation we’d had with Kukoc during a similar hot streak last December.

“It’s difficult coming off the bench. I still think it’s much easier starting the game,” he said, a statement usually read as a complaint in the media but one Kukoc seems to mean as a simple fact. “Maybe before I was thinking too much about the game,” he added, “and the only thing right now I want to do is come in aggressive.

“I was watching tapes, and I catch myself just with the ball in my hands doing nothing–not passing, not penetrating, not shooting, just waiting for something, somebody, I don’t know what. So right now I’m really trying to be aggressive from the first second I come in.

“When the game is going well, everything gets much easier to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s offense or defense,” he said. “When you see me laughing on the court it means I’m having fun and really enjoying the game. Usually, I don’t have any fun on the court.”

He was smiling after he hit that third straight three against the Magic in the fourth quarter, and Jack Haley came off the bench to give him a chest bump at center court at the next time-out. After three straight excellent games Kukoc struggled a bit against the Celtics last Saturday, but even then he pulled off an eye-opening assist. Saving a ball going out of bounds in the backcourt in the fourth quarter, the game long since out of reach, he flung a behind-the-back pass across the court to Jason Caffey out on the fast break. Caffey took it on in, finishing with a reverse slam dunk–a bit of French pastry that seemed to epitomize the Bulls’ gleeful approach to basketball these days.

“It’s easy to smile when you’re 22 points up,” Jordan said afterward.

And when you’re 52-6.