Ben Gordon has a predatory quality–it’s in both his appearance and his style of play. His chiseled features–high cheekbones and hooded eyebrows–give him the coolly dispassionate aspect of a bird of prey: keen, compact, and intent. On the court with the Bulls, he has a deadeye shooting touch when he gets hot, which is most often when a game is on the line. At those moments he rifles his shots with a distinctive heavy backspin, and each is what a golfer calls “center cut”–right in the middle of the hole, or in Gordon’s case the basket. When the game is over and he’s brought back another kill, he doesn’t glory in it; it’s as if he’d simply complied with his nature.

The Bulls returned to the NBA playoffs Sunday for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. They’d undergone a metamorphosis during the season, losing their first nine games before emerging as a talented and suddenly mature basketball team. Not only did they make the playoffs, they claimed home court advantage in the first round by rising to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 47-35. It was an amazing turnaround. Yet everyone–not least coach Scott Skiles–was curious about how this young group would respond to the added pressure and intensity of the playoffs. Gordon had supplied fourth-quarter heroics throughout the season: pressure was his element.

Gordon spent most of the season coming off the bench, and Skiles wasn’t about to alter that for the postseason. Gordon later said he was nervous just sitting there, but the only way he betrayed it was by running to the bathroom midway through the first quarter. He returned in time to enter the game with the score tied at 14, and worked his way into the flow by draining a shot–bang–off the back rim, then another, then another to finish the quarter, in the process keeping the Bulls close to the Washington Wizards. In the second quarter, which began with the Wizards up 26-24, he got into one of those streaks where he almost couldn’t miss. His opposite number, Larry Hughes, was feeling it too, but when Hughes went for a steal and missed midway through the quarter, Gordon made him pay for being out of position by hitting a three to put the Bulls ahead 39-36. They held a 53-52 advantage at the half, with Gordon having scored 18 and Hughes 24.

What’s distinguished the Bulls this season–as it did the Illini, who overshadowed them for most of the winter–is that first and foremost they play as a team. To be sure, Gordon often supplied the heroics, scoring in double digits in the fourth quarter 21 times, once scoring 22 in that quarter for a win in Charlotte, and twice hitting game-winning shots at or near the buzzer–the latest only the week before. But the Bulls, like the Illini, won with a determined, hard-nosed, helping defense that contested every shot, and a motion offense that just plain outhustled opponents, Kirk Hinrich sometimes circling the floor like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. What’s most convincing about the Bulls’ turnaround is the way they’ve kept winning even without key players. Hinrich went down for a short stretch, and the team kept winning. Teenage phenom Luol Deng was lost for the season, and the team kept winning. Center Eddy Curry, who finally came of age in his fourth year to give the Bulls an inside offensive presence, was lost for the season with an irregular heartbeat. And the team kept winning.

The Bulls’ final home game of the regular season was the season in miniature. They took the floor against the New York Knicks with a chance to clinch the home court advantage against Washington if they won and Washington lost–and the Wizards were already down 22 in New Jersey. But it was one of those nights when the ball just wouldn’t drop. Tyson Chandler, Andres Nocioni, and even Hinrich all missed point-blank shots as the Knicks opened a 43-36 lead at halftime. In the second half, however, Skiles inserted a scrappy three-guard lineup, with Hinrich, Gordon, and Chris Duhon joined by Chandler, Antonio Davis, and then the even scrappier Nocioni for Davis. That group trimmed the New York lead and pulled ahead going into the final quarter.

But the Knicks came back and reclaimed the lead, and only Hinrich kept the Bulls in the game. It turned into a top-this battle between him and Jamal Crawford, the promising but selfish potential star the Bulls dealt to the Knicks for almost nothing last summer. Crawford hit a shot to give the Knicks a 91-90 lead in the final minute, and after a couple of turbulent possessions the Bulls looked done. They were forced to foul Crawford with 11 seconds left, but he missed both shots and the Bulls got the ball back. The red-hot Hinrich, acting as a decoy, passed to Gordon. He went one-on-one with the Knicks’ Jermaine Jackson, jumped just to the side of the free-throw line, and banged the shot off the back rim and through the hoop.

If Gordon’s heroics came early in the opener against the Wizards, it was the team as a whole that prevailed in the second half. The Bulls fell behind at the end of the third quarter but scrambled back again with that three-guard lineup of Hinrich, Gordon, Duhon, Chandler, and “Noach.” Chandler ignited the crowd with a ferocious block of Kwame Brown early in the fourth quarter, Gordon caused a steal and got the ball back for an uncontested slam dunk–giving him 30 points in his playoff debut–and Nocioni hit the key shot when Hinrich drove the lane and passed wide to him for an open three that put the Bulls up 99-94. When Nocioni drew an offensive foul to thwart the Wizards in the final minutes, the crowd started chanting “Noh-chee-oh-nee,” and they repeated the refrain when he pulled down a final rebound, his 18th of the game, to seal the 103-94 victory. Nocioni, a seasoned rookie from Argentina, had played tough and gritty all season, and he seemed even scruffier the last few weeks after getting a buzz cut, which didn’t go as well with his Maynard G. Krebs goatee as his shag had. He simply outworked the bigger Washington front line under the boards while scoring 25 points.

The Bulls had beaten their fellow NBA upstarts the Wizards without Curry, without Deng, and without any last-second heroics from Gordon. “Noach was the best player on the floor tonight,” Gordon said afterward. But for all the benefits of team play, I’d just as soon not have to see how the Bulls would do without Gordon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jesse Garrabrant–NBAE–Getty Images.