The All-Star break almost two-thirds of the way through the National Basketball Association’s regular season couldn’t have come soon enough for the Bulls, who have approached this entire “three-peat” thing as the most odious of tasks. It’s been as if they meant to twiddle their thumbs until the break passed and it became time to get serious. Not that there’s anything unsound about that; it’s just hell on sportswriters.

The idea that the NBA season is all but useless is an old one among sportswriters, but still they have a hard time coming to terms with it. All season we’ve been reading stories about what’s wrong with the Bulls, how they’ll never be able to repeat, how they’re satisfied and laconic and simply not committed. And it’s true, the Bulls have looked apathetic at times, and they may not win a third straight title. The challenges are the sternest they’ve faced since they defeated the Detroit Pistons in four straight games in the playoffs two years ago. Still, there are a few undeniable facts. No team in the league has yet proved it can handle the Bulls’ best game. The Phoenix Suns lost a home game to the Bulls early in the season, the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz folded up their tents when the Bulls recently came to town, the New York Knicks wilted under the Bulls’ best defensive pressure on Christmas Day, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, well, the Cavs remain the Bulls’ little brother.

Of course, both those last teams recently whipped the Bulls at home, and we’ll get to that soon enough. Even so, the Bulls know what it takes to win a championship, and they should approach that necessary level once they enter the playoffs. Does anyone really believe that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are going to get into a tough spot in the playoffs and decide, hey, two championships are enough?

As for this season, it has mimicked last year’s playoffs just as last season mimicked the playoffs before. The Bulls went 15-2 in the postseason in winning their first championship, and they marched through the league in similar fashion last season. Then they meandered through the playoffs with the attitude of win when you must and coast when you can, an attitude that didn’t keep them from repeating and that has carried over to this season. They were 67-15 a year ago, a winning percentage very close to their playoff mark of the season before, and they are 35-17, one game above .667 this season, just as they were 15-7 in last season’s playoffs. It’s no time to panic. What’s more, there have been encouraging signs this month even as they were losing those back-to-back games to the Knicks and Cavs.

There’s no denying those were costly losses. They allowed the Knicks to tie the Bulls for the best record in the Eastern Conference at the break (out west, both the Suns and the San Antonio Spurs have better records), while the Cavs pulled within a game and a half of the Bulls in the Central Division. Yet the loss to the Knicks was kind of a wash, as it was the game Michael Jordan missed on suspension for fighting the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller.

That incident itself was rather humorous, coming as it did at the end of the Bulls’ triumphant 6-3 road trip. Miller has always been a cocksure little whippersnapper, ever unimpressed with the Jordan aura. So when he ran into Jordan out of bounds, Jordan was in no mood for conciliation. He and Miller went to grappling at center court, both knowing that punches would cost them money and a suspension. Jordan pulled, pushed, and even attempted to scratch at Miller’s eyes, but in the end his passions won out–sort of like that John Wayne scene in which he says, “I’m not gonna punch ya, I’m not gonna punch ya–the hell I’m not.” The referees, who had not seen Jordan’s awkward attempt at a punch, ejected Miller but allowed Jordan to remain in the game, a decision that set off Indiana head coach Bob Hill and got Hill ejected. In this, the referees were somehow, nevertheless, right. Jordan should not be expected to tolerate such behavior, and while Miller is the Pacers’ best player it’s not fair to allow him to take Jordan off the court. To deny this is to court the ways of hockey, where enforcers are brought in to take care of anyone who musses the hair of the team’s star. Miller, however, had the last laugh. After he’d complained about unequal treatment, the league had no choice but to enforce the suspension for punching when the replays showed what the refs had missed.

So Jordan sat out against the Knicks. The Bulls played well–Pippen was at the height of his powers, demonstrating that he does, indeed, have the talent to take over a game the way Jordan does–but in the fourth quarter, when Jordan is typically the Bulls’ go-to guy, the fellow they look for when they absolutely must have a basket, he was missed, and the Knicks caught the Bulls and went on to win.

Any sense of a moral victory was dispersed the following night, when Jordan returned but the Bulls lost to the Cavs. The impression that both teams were lunging toward the All-Star break while trying to win an undeniably important game was pervasive. Jordan, who said he had been impressed by his teammates’ play the previous night, was overly cautious working himself back into the flow. Besides, the Cavs were double-teaming him. At the half he had four assists but only five points, and the Cavs led 57-52. The Bulls rallied at the end of the third quarter, however, and took a 91-90 lead into the final frame, in which they then scored the first four points. The Cavs looked frazzled and ready to fold. Yet Cleveland head coach Lenny Wilkens called a time-out, composed his team, and got them back to their game plan.

Which, in the words of Bulls’ head coach Phil Jackson, was this: “They baited us inside and hit the three-point shot. They baited us outside and hit [Brad] Daugherty on the lane. We double-teamed on Daugherty, they rotated the ball out to the three-point shooter. It was a real cut-up was what it was.”

Daugherty finished with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting. The Cavs also made 10 of 16 from three-point range, including a three by Danny Ferry to tie the game at 97, another Ferry three to put the Cavs up 107-105, and the clincher, a Craig Ehlo three that gave the Cavs a 114-111 lead with 47 seconds to play. “Their three-point shooting was out of this world, and that was the difference in the ball game,” Jackson said.

Yet just because the Bulls understood why they had lost didn’t make them any happier about it. To a man, they seemed genuinely depressed. “I haven’t been so disappointed in our defense in a long time,” Jackson said. “I just felt we could never take them out of what they were trying to do.”

“I think everyone is angry at the way we played defense tonight,” added Horace Grant. “We talked about doing certain things to Mark Price and Brad Daugherty. We just didn’t execute them on the floor.

“There was no defense tonight. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and we didn’t do it.”

“We just didn’t play good defense, we didn’t stop them,” said Pippen. “They shot well, but we just allowed them to come down and push the ball. Price was able to break us down.”

Jordan was, as usual, one of the last in the locker room, but he was uncharacteristically dour. “You really can’t outscore this team,” he said. “You have to have some defense somewhere.”

Yet he went on, “As long as we’re in front, we still control our own destiny.”

That’s the attitude I expect to assert itself in the playoffs. Jordan and Pippen and Grant are one reason: they are intelligent players, and they have a sense of history that Jackson knows how to play to. They know that a third straight title will establish them as the best basketball team of the last 25 years (no team has three-peated since the Boston Celtics in the mid-60s). They also know that defense, not offense, wins in the playoffs, and defense was bolstered with the recent signing of Darrell Walker, a defensive specialist at guard (his play was pivotal both in the comeback victory in Utah and a following overtime victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on the long road trip). Bill Cartwright missed the Cleveland game with a back injury, and he figures to be back for the playoffs; his inner defense is essential. Will Perdue, meanwhile, put two straight strong games together against the Knicks and Cavs. He had been in a funk since his poor performance in the playoff series with the Knicks last year, and his ten-point game against the New Yorkers two weeks ago seemed to break a spell that had been cast upon him. If Cartwright can play defense and the Bulls can call on either Perdue or Stacey King for some quick center offense off the bench, then Scott Williams can concentrate on spelling Grant at power forward–the Bulls’ shallowest position–and Walker and John Paxson can spell B.J. Armstrong at point guard, depending on whether the Bulls need defense or a dependable outside shot. That means minimal expectations for Rodney McCray and Trent Tucker, the sort of veteran players who can salvage an otherwise wasted season by pulling a playoff game victory out of their hats (remember, Cliff Levingston was criticized both of the last two regular seasons before redeeming himself in the playoffs).

The Bulls figure to have Jordan ready for any remaining games with the Knicks, and the Cavs don’t figure to make two-thirds of their three-point shots against the Bulls again this century, but the playoff schedule will nonetheless be crucial. The Bulls must hold onto the top spot in the East, because that would allow them two relatively easy series before the conference finals. At present, the Bulls’ best-case scenario would have them edging out the Knicks for best record in the East, and playing the Pacers or the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Then they’d advance to play the winner of the series between the Celtics and New Jersey Nets. Then they’d advance to play the weary winner between the Knicks and Cavs. If they fall behind the Knicks, however, then they’ll have to weary themselves against the Cavs before advancing to face the Knicks–a tough row to hoe in the long run, in the NBA finals, and potentially demoralizing in the short run, against the Cavs.

Still, it all comes down to the Bulls making the playoffs, when from series to series both teams get the same rest and have the same time to prepare for each game. What kind of Jordan or Pippen performance would we see if the Bulls were down 3-1 or 3-2 in a series, with an entire summer to rest up from however tired they got? The Bulls aren’t apt to leave anything on the court this year, unless they’re allowed to coast the way they did last year. This could very well be the best postseason of the three. As Jackson told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum recently, “I anticipated the worst, and so far, honestly, it hasn’t been that. But it hasn’t been easy, either. And since we’re going for a third championship, which is something very, very rare, it shouldn’t be.”

In short, things aren’t as bad as they seem. While I agree that this might be the weakest Chicago team in three seasons, it still might be the best in the league–in head-to-head play if not overall. What does that mean? That somebody is going to have to beat the Bulls to become the next champion, and I for one am going to have to see it done to be convinced.