The delightful spring weather, the noon starting time, and the appearance of one of the best teams in the league as visitors to Chicago Stadium all combined to give last Sunday’s Bulls game a playoff feel. It was about time. The long National Basketball Association schedule had begun to wear noticeably on the Bulls. Where at the start of the season the Bulls had let their momentum from last year carry them, and where as the season dragged toward its midpoint all teams seemed equally apathetic and the Bulls won simply on account of talent, recently some teams have begun rounding themselves into shape, giving the Bulls a tougher time of it. They dropped a couple of worrisome decisions to division rivals, both in the final minutes, losing a home game to the Cleveland Cavaliers in mid-February and a road game to the Detroit Pistons last week. The Bulls had dominated the Cavs since their 1989 playoff series and the Pistons since about this time last season.

“The Detroit game, particularly, was a game I thought that we didn’t step up and complete,” said head coach Phil Jackson after Sunday’s contest. “I think it became a priority that we should get out and finish the games off. We had a six-, seven-point lead against Detroit and didn’t extend it.”

On that note, at the end of the season we may all look back on last Friday’s game in Milwaukee and see the pivotal point in the Bulls’ year. The Bucks had beaten the Bulls twice in a row up there, in spite of suffering through what has been a disappointing season for them. The Bucks’ guard tandem of Jay Humphries and Alvin Robertson always seems to have a great game against the Bulls, throwing them into an unsettled frame of mind. Last Friday was no exception. Humphries was hitting from everywhere on the floor, and he was joined in his torrid shooting by guard Dale Ellis. They were firing up three-pointers and desperation shots that kept going in. The Bulls, however, did not unravel this time. They played stern defense, waiting for Ellis and Humphries to cool off, and finally went ahead when Michael Jordan stole the ball and slapped it out to Scottie Pippen, who drove for a fast-break lay-up and a foul, completing the three-point play to give the Bulls their first lead since the first quarter, 100-99. After that, they tightened up the defense still more and won by a handful.

“That just showed our poise and the confidence we had in ourselves,” said backup center Will Perdue, “particularly up there, where we’ve had a couple of close games we weren’t able to pull out. We didn’t play that well overall, but we played well enough to win at the end. It might’ve righted the ship a little bit.”

That lift made all the difference on Sunday. Where the Bulls have looked lethargic in recent weeks, they opened strong against the Portland Trail Blazers–the team that had the second-best record in the league–and ran them off the floor.

Pippen and Jordan came out snapping and snarling on defense. Each had six points and five rebounds in the first quarter. At one point John Paxson put up a shot that glanced off the front of the rim, and Pippen scrambled for the rebound and fed the ball back out to Paxson, who reloaded and made it for a 16-7 Bulls lead. Yet the Blazers got a hoop back, Clyde Drexler made two in a row, and Terry Porter hit a three-pointer to tie the game just like that. It looked as if this was going to be a typically hard-fought contest between the league’s best.

Yet after the Blazers held a 23-20 first-quarter advantage, both teams went flat. The game was in the doldrums, with everyone–especially Jordan–looking tired and droopy under the eyes. Halfway through the quarter the Bulls led 31-28, having outscored the Blazers 11-5 in a six-minute stretch. The Bulls were the first to snap out of it, with Jordan looking revived after his early second-quarter catnap on the bench. He hit a turnaround jumper to make it 34-28. A few minutes later he drove past Drexler and into the Blazers’ Buck Williams. Jordan leapt, twisted, leading with his left shoulder, and flipped the ball up with his trailing right hand, scoring off the backboard to make it 44-35.

The Bulls had the leverage on the Blazers now, and they used it. They forced a fast break, with Pippen scoring on a driving lay-up and a foul. He missed the free throw, leaving it 46-38, but Horace Grant stole the Blazers’ outlet pass and drove for a basket and another foul. He completed the three-point play, then stole another Portland pass. The ball was flowing almost magnetically to his hands. He passed to Pippen for the basket, making it 51-38 with a minute to play. Jackson brought in three-point specialist Craig Hodges for Grant (who received a standing ovation) to spread out the floor, and Pippen drove through the broken field and passed it to a wide-open Cliff Levingston under the basket for a jam and a 55-40 lead at the half. The Bulls had out-scored the Blazers 24-12 in the last six minutes of the second quarter.

Analyzing the game afterward, Jackson cut the Blazers some slack, pointing out they were on the road in what was–national TV audience or not–an almost meaningless game. He said he didn’t feel the Bulls had proved anything against Portland. “We just had some good energy,” he said. “The guys had some live legs. I think energy won rather than basketball expertise today.”

Still, there was some strategy involved. The Bulls had planned to attack with Pippen against Portland’s Jerome Kersey, and that they did. Pippen finished the first half with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, Kersey with 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 personal fouls. Also, the Bulls made sure it would be a one-on-one game by spreading out on offense, especially centers Bill Cartwright and Will Perdue, who played away from the basket to keep the Blazers’ miniature mountain of a center, Kevin Duckworth, from mucking things up in the middle. And Cartwright and Perdue rolled down the lane for easy buckets when the Portland centers strayed from their appointed duties.

The Blazers weren’t at their best, but that didn’t prompt the Bulls to show mercy. As Jordan said afterward, “They turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, which kind of gave us our lead. And coming out in the second half we were very aggressive. We didn’t let up at all.”

This was the Bulls back at their best, showing the killer instinct they’d lacked the last few weeks. Pippen drove for a basket to get the defense back on its heels as the third quarter opened, then he and Paxson and Jordan hit jump shots from the perimeter in rapid succession. When Jordan added a pair of free throws on the Bulls’ next possession, they had a 24-point lead. Having prepared the defense for a perimeter game, Pippen, Jordan, and Paxson all set up out there again. Pippen passed to Jordan, and Jordan faked a pass to Paxson and–in the same motion–swung a bullet pass to Grant under the basket for an easy hoop. That made it 70-46 midway through the third quarter. The game was over.

Jordan took a break after the third quarter, then came in for Pippen, as the two stars shepherded a varying collection of subs through the rest of the game, maintaining a 20-point lead. Jordan completed the day with a coup de grace jam over the Blazers’ Cliff Robinson on a fast break, a dunk executed at such high speed and in such traffic that it brought Pippen and Grant up off the Bulls’ bench laughing and clapping. Jordan left the game seconds later to a standing ovation from the rest of the fans in the arena. Final: 111-91.

“From last year, this is the time when we stepped forward and formed our identity as a unit,” Jordan said afterward. “We’re starting to make that push toward the end of the season. We’re starting to play a lot better.

“We knew we had two tough games–Milwaukee and Portland. We hadn’t had that type of challenge in a while. We really hadn’t had that type of competition in a long time.”

“I think winning’s contagious,” Jackson said. “When you win, it’s a contagious thing and you just keep playing with more confidence. When you have success, it triggers more, particularly when you do it at the end of a game,” as against the Bucks.

Perdue has the look of a big, dumbstruck guy much of the time on the court. He’s a Vanderbilt grad, however, well-spoken and intelligent, and the slow way he has eased himself into the team’s system over the years has made him particularly astute at analyzing the Bulls.

“We’re playing a lot of teams now, down the stretch, that we could face in the playoffs. We had Portland today. We have Indiana on Tuesday, and they’ve made a statement where they think they can beat us if they face us in the playoffs. We’ve got Philadelphia coming up after that, and we’ve always had trouble winning in Philadelphia.

“We’re trying to make a few statements to wrap up the season,” he said. “We’ve got to make a statement against the teams we might play in the first or second round.”

For the Bulls, the end of the long NBA season is finally within view. There’s light at the end of the tunnel: the bright lights of a team trying to repeat as league champions.