It was just about this time a year ago that the Bulls were being told–and in some cases were telling themselves–they couldn’t win a championship with the players they had. Now, the Bulls–who remain essentially the same–are arousing speculation that they may be the greatest team in the history of the National Basketball Association. There is persistent, albeit unwanted, talk of the Bulls becoming the first team to win 70 games in a season; with Sunday’s win over the Detroit Pistons they went to 33-5 almost midway through the 82-game campaign, which puts them on a pace to do it. There have been teams with more all-around talent–like the Los Angeles Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, who set the record of 69 wins in 1971-72, and the Lakers of the 80s with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And there have been teams that were more unified in their purpose–like the Boston Celtics of the 60s and the New York Knicks of the early 70s. But the Bulls may well be the best ever at combining great athletic ability with an astute understanding of that ability–their strengths and weaknesses and how they apply to the sport.

Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen continue to dominate the Bulls–both the offensive and defensive schemes are constructed to exploit their talents–but it is head coach Phil Jackson and his assistants Tex Winter, John Bach, and Jim Cleamons who designed those schemes and who alter them to suit each opponent. The Bulls prepare for games the way a football team prepares for the playoffs–with films, scouting reports, and practice sessions devoted to the other team’s specialties–so that they know what they want to accomplish. This gives them the composure to survive the rugged patches that trouble every team and the confidence to win tight games in the fourth quarter.

For instance, last Friday against the San Antonio Spurs (one of the best teams in the Western Conference) the Bulls fell behind 54-45 at the half. Now, one would expect the Bulls to come out in the second half and try to pick up the game’s pace, turning it toward the open-court, pell-mell style at which they excel, and against most of the other teams in the league that would have been the case. Yet the Spurs too excel at that game. Jackson called them “a great defensive team” with “great quickness and athleticism,” a description that could be applied to the Bulls as well. The Spurs posed unusual problems, requiring an unusual solution.

“Their defense is very good because they shoot the gaps, they knock the ball loose, they have a blocker behind them [David Robinson] so they can take all the risks chasing the ball,” Jackson said afterward. “So we talked [at halftime] about getting them lined up and getting them in a set position in our offense, so that we could get them all in their sites and start picking them apart–once we get them settled down defensively, so they’re not jumping around and active with their hands. We got that accomplished early in the half. Then it was our turn to get active on defense and start knocking the ball around and doing some double-teaming and trapping.”

The Bulls opened the second half with deliberation and set plays. Ninety seconds into the third quarter, Jordan drove, attracting three defenders, and passed behind his back to an open John Paxson for an easy jump shot that cut the lead to 56-51. A minute later Jordan faked his man, Willie Anderson, into the air, then drove the lane, leaping, showing Robinson the ball, bringing it back down, and laying it in under Robinson’s outstretched arms. That tied the game at 56. The Bulls had erased a nine-point deficit against one of the best teams in the league in two minutes and 45 seconds.

After a San Antonio time-out the momentum rolled back and forth, with the game tied again at 65. After a loose-ball foul on the Spurs’ Antoine Carr, however, Horace Grant sank two free throws and the Bulls–as usual after a free throw–went to a full-court press. The Spurs struggled to get the ball across the half-court line, then threw the ball away to Jordan. He and Pippen came down on the break, with a pass going to Pippen and another back to Jordan for the dunk over a cringing Anderson. Now the Bulls were in their natural game. While their teammates played conservative defense, Jordan and Pippen were swarming after the ball. Yet after another San Antonio miss Jordan came down with the long rebound, waited for the backcourt to clear, and glided up on the dribble with the Spurs welcoming the opportunity to fall back into their half-court defense. So Jordan pulled up at the top of the key and popped a long jumper, simple as that.

The Bulls had established their superiority, and from there it was just a matter of finishing. In the fourth quarter Jordan came down on a fast break but pulled up, missing Pippen on an alley-oop. Jordan was visibly upset with himself, and passed belatedly to Pippen as the Spurs got back. Pippen swung toward the baseline, leapt, dropped the jump shot, and then consoled Jordan on the way back down the court.

Later, when the Spurs tried to rally, the Bulls ran set plays to Paxson, cutting off screens, and he hit a pair of open jumpers. In the waning moments the Bulls spread out across the floor, going almost to a four-corners offense. Trying to cover half the court, the Spurs left the middle open, and Jordan slung a pass to Will Perdue under the basket for a stuff. The threat to pass established, Jordan soon drove himself for an almost unmolested jam. The final: 102-96 Bulls.

“Momentum’s the whole thing in basketball,” Jackson has said. “Consecutive scores–those six-two, eight-two runs that you get–that’s what really breaks the backs of the opponents.”

Sound as that sounds, it has to be applied to the game. Momentum doesn’t fall from the sky or the scoreboard. Yet just as the Bulls know how to apply their skills in the abstract–speed and athleticism–to the game at hand, Jackson knows what strategic moves to make to swing the momentum in the Bulls’ favor. Only a week before, against the Utah Jazz, the Bulls came from a 62-54 second-half deficit with a deceptively simple piece of Jackson advice: strive harder to get loose balls. With scrum specialists Perdue and Cliff Levingston on the floor with Grant, Jordan, and B.J. Armstrong, the Bulls rallied to take the lead at 73-72 on an Armstrong jumper and went on to win comfortably, 105-90.

“Some of it has to do with these Western teams that you only play twice,” Jackson said. “You really don’t get in a rhythm or get to know that much about them. You see a couple tapes, you have a personnel report, you have a scout go out and look at the games, and then a lot of it has to do with who establishes the momentum in the course of the game. We’ve been fortunate the last year and a half to have the momentum at the end of the game.”

That was also the case a week ago Thursday in Cleveland, against the Cavaliers, a team with tremendous talent that has suffered from chronic injuries in recent years. This season, with everyone healthy, they’ve established themselves as the Bulls’ top Eastern Conference rival. Yet the Bulls kept the Cavs at arm’s length for most of the game; when the Cavs closed to within a point in the fourth quarter, the Bulls responded with a 20-6 finishing spurt.

This was the second-best team in the league they had beaten by 15 on the road. Yet when Pippen was asked when the Bulls returned home if there were any room for improvement, he said immediately, “Our consistency. I think that at times we come down the court and go oh-for-seven. And that’s something that’s not really affecting us right now, but sooner or later it’s bound to catch up on us. We’ve got to at least not go more than oh-for-three down the court without scoring, or at least get good shots. When we hit those oh-for-seven, oh-for-six streaks, it gets kind of scary at times.”

It got plenty scary against the Pistons last Sunday. The Pistons struggled early in the season to assimilate new personnel–especially Orlando Woolridge–and were badly beaten by the Bulls on their first trip to the Chicago Stadium. Yet they had regained their equilibrium, winning 12 of their last 14, and– most important–had not played in four days before playing the Bulls, who were coming off the road game in Cleveland and the home game against the Spurs the following night, only about 36 hours before. If the Pistons were going to beat the Bulls, this was the time.

The Bulls hit their first seven shots from the field, then–with Jordan on the bench with two early fouls–they went into one of their droughts, falling behind 31-20 at the end of the first quarter. Momentum was important–B.J. Armstrong led the Bulls back into the game in the second quarter, when the Pistons scored only 14 points, with Isiah Thomas on the bench for much of the period–but in the second half it became almost irrelevant. The referees had discouraged dirty play by calling a tight game, and after halftime it simply became a matter of hard, tight defensive play and determination.

After a back-and-forth third quarter, Paxson hit a three-pointer to get the Bulls within two with four minutes to play. After Thomas responded in kind, Pippen came back with a three-point play on a foul. After Jordan made only one of two free throws on another foul, Pippen put the Bulls in front 83-82 with a long jump shot. The defense was obviously doing its job; the Bulls had allowed the Cavs and Spurs only 42 second-half points apiece, and they would allow the Pistons only 40. Jordan picked off a pass, was fouled by Thomas, and this time made both free throws to put the Bulls up 85-82 with a minute to go. They held on to win 87-85.

Momentum has been the key word for the Bulls so far this season. They aimed to peak on their first western road trip, in November, and won all six games away from the Stadium. They clearly planned to peak here in mid-January, when the harshest part of their schedule called for them to play 12 games in 18 days before going on another six-game western road trip.

The ability to win when they feel they need to bodes well for the playoffs. What’s amazing is that, from night to night, they manage to win with concentrated bursts, not full 48-minute efforts. That–their cool, and Jackson’s ability to trigger those spurts with the proper tactics–is what is making them a threat to set a league record for victories.