With six seconds to play in the first quarter of the Bulls’ first playoff game against Atlanta, Will Perdue pulled down a rebound under the Hawks’ basket and dribbled a couple of steps into the open. He then passed ahead to John Paxson near the center line. Paxson must have checked the time when Perdue came down with the ball; now his inner clock was ticking. He dribbled downcourt, into the free-throw lane, and put up a 15-foot fall-away jump shot. It swished at the buzzer, giving the Bulls a 36-28 lead to close an almost flawless period of basketball. (A pair of missed Horace Grant free throws was the one flashback to the Bulls’ oftentimes muddleheaded ways during the regular season.) This sequence that brought the quarter to such a satisfying conclusion was like a long-lost friend. The Bulls were back, playing playoff basketball, and they looked like the two-time defending champions they are.

The Bulls’ fourth-quarter comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in last season’s final game was both one of the amazing events in Chicago sports history and an unfortunate tone setter for this season. Ever since, the Bulls have played with insouciance, with the attitude that no lead was insurmountable, no opponent too tough, no series of games too demanding–in short, that they could turn it on at will. This sort of confidence might seem a blessing, but it can easily become a curse. “That’s something you really have to prevent, especially in the playoffs,” says head coach Phil Jackson. A team can find itself too deep too late, like a swimmer caught in undertow. Or like the Bulls in their final game of the regular season in New York, two days after they’d surrendered the Eastern Conference’s top seed in the playoffs to the Knicks by losing in the last minute to the Charlotte Hornets. The ensuing loss in New York ended the season on a distinctly unconfident note.

Still, this was a team that had been saying all season that it was simply waiting for the playoffs to start, a team that nevertheless finished with the third-best record in the league. The Bulls demonstrated the confidence of champions against the Hawks last weekend in the first two games of their best-of-five opening series. In the first game the Bulls played almost perfect basketball. They pounded the ball in to center Bill Cartwright for 8 first-quarter points and 14 overall (in a mere 15 minutes on the floor). They befuddled the Hawks’ seven-foot power forward, Kevin Willis–who had chewed them up in the first two games of the four-game regular-season series (eventually Split 2-2)–with a stunting, double teaming defense. Scottie Pippen played man-to-man defense on the Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins, the league’s leading scorer after Michael Jordan, and kept him more or less under control. Jordan was in his element, scoring 18 in the first quarter, on the way to 35. (He pulled off a couple of vintage moves, spearing a desperate out-of-bounds pass from Pippen one handed and hitting a short jumper at the start of the game, and later faking the Hawks’ Randy Breuer with that one-handed deke of his and driving past him for a slam dunk.) And the bench, the much-maligned bench, pounded the boards, in large part responsible for the Bulls’ 62-28 rebound advantage. The Hawks never had a chance, losing 114-90.

The Hawks are a talented team. Wilkins, a perennial All-Star, returned from an Achilles’ heel injury to have his most admirable season, averaging almost 30 points a game (Jordan averaged 32.6). His lovely form on his jump shot–he jumps, his legs come together, and he fires the ball from just above his forehead–gives him the too-perfect look of a computer generated image. Willis, the other forward, is a skilled low-post scorer and one of the league’s top rebounders, finishing with a full three-plus more boards a game than the Bulls’ leader, Horace Grant. And the Hawks’ guards match up well against the Bulls’. Point guard Mookie Blaylock had his best season this year, and off guard Stacey Augmon, the man charged with shadowing Jordan, is a defensive specialist, built like the blade of a knife and with a perpetually pained expression under his mustache and goatee.

Yet the Hawks also have their problems. It will take a center to beat the Bulls, and the Hawks’ is Jon Koncak, an overgrown pretty-boy surfer. The Atlanta bench is inexperienced. And Willis and Wilkins, while talented, have always had attitudes that seemed somehow unsuitable to winning. Willis, with his pencil mustache, reacts to foul calls as if he’s been brought the wrong wine. And Wilkins is a one-dimensional player, a dervish with the ball who does little when it’s not in his hands. Bob Weiss, schooled in the game by Dick Motta while a member of the great early-70s Bulls, has grown up to be the Hawks’ coach, but–with his bald head, bookish glasses, and conservative suits–he looks more like a school principal than a basketball strategist. During that first game, he seemed to be trying to keep order during a particularly unruly assembly.

After the game, he was left in the uncomfortable position of having to answer repeated questions on how good the Bulls looked. It was a position we’d seen several coaches in the last few seasons, but none anytime recently. Were the Bulls trying to send the rest of the league a message that they were back? I think they were trying to win the game,” said Weiss.

Game two, everyone knew, would be different, and it was. The Hawks were more determined Sunday, the Bulls not quite as focused. The referees were also calling a looser game. This rewarded the belly-to-belly defense of the Hawks’ second team, which seized the lead at 30-27 early in the second quarter. Yet Paxson again made a key play. He drove the lane, tossed in a basket, and was fouled, reinvigorating the quieted Chicago Stadium crowd. Paxson missed the free throw, but the Bulls stopped the Hawks on their next possession and Trent Tucker followed with a three-point field goal. Another Atlanta miss and a long rebound resulted in a three-on-one Bulls break, Pippen finishing it with a leaping foot-in-your-face slam dunk over Steve Henson. After a Pippen steal, Paxson hit another three-point shot. The ten-point blitz gave the Bulls a 37-30 lead. They never trailed again.

This victory was hardly flawless for the Bulls. They allowed the Hawks to get back within one before halftime and to within ten with seven and a half minutes to play, after the Bulls seemed to have put the game away. The Hawks maintained a rebounding advantage throughout, and the Bulls’ passing wasn’t as sharp as it had been in the opener. Yet hints of the collapses that had periodically troubled them during the regular season remained just that–hints. After the Bulls exploited some ragged play on both sides to pull out to an 81-67 lead in the third quarter, Pippen was unable to inbound the ball–an all-too-familiar emergency signal. The Bulls, however, maintained their composure and led 85-70 through three quarters. Jackson put in a mobile lineup, led by Jordan, to start the fourth, and they quickly pushed the lead to 20. But the Hawks scored the next nine points before Jordan started driving to the hoop. Still, the Hawks could have cut the lead to single digits with six minutes to play, but the Bulls earned a defensive stop and Pippen came down on a semifast break to hit a rim tickler from the top of the free-throw circle, all but sealing the win. The final score was a comfortable 117-102, with Jordan with 29 points and Pippen 25.

“It gives us confidence in ourselves, obviously,” said Jackson. “I don’t think this team needs that particularly but it does give us a good feeling about ourselves.”

That feeling is based–and this is most important–on a sound appreciation of where the team stands, an unwillingness to accept overconfidence. In this light, the failings of the regular season are past, but they remain painful lessons.

“We don’t get too carried away because there’s still a lot of work ahead of us,” said Paxson. “I mean, this is just one series, so far, and it’s not over yet.”

Like the opener, the second game was marked by a buzzer-beating shot, this one a three-pointer at halftime that gave the Bulls a 56-49 lead. Jackson called it the moment that swung the momentum irreversibly to the Bulls. Willis had been fouled with three seconds to play. He made the first free throw, missed the second. Again Perdue came down with the rebound. This time, though, there was no time to check the clock. He made a baseball pass out to Jordan. Jordan turned, dribbled a few steps, and shot from just past the center line.

There’s something about such a shot. It seems the very stuff of luck, but it takes planning just to get it off. God, as they say, is in the details. Perdue had to know where Jordan would be. Jordan had to feel how much time he had to move closer to the basket before firing. There was a slight, split-fingered flair to his follow-through that put us on alert. The ball was up and moved, with an air of inevitability, toward the hoop.

It’s closing on the basket, it’s going in.

It’s in!