On Dec. 7 Miami thoroughly outplayed the Bulls, but the Heat still needed a game-winning three by Dan Majerle to hand Chicago its first home loss, 83-80. The next night in Toronto the Bulls fell to the Raptors by eight points as Jordan scored a season-low 13. That would be the first of just two sets of back-to-back losses for Chicago in the regular season.
It would take more than two straight defeats to shake the veteran team. After the Raptors loss, the Bulls rattled off eight wins. The closest call came on Dec. 17 against Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers at the United Center. The brash Lakers were dunking the ball with ease, sinking uncontested three-pointers and blowing untouched by defenders. Up by 18 at the end of the third quarter, the Lakers were celebrating on their bench and taunting Bulls fans. "We were embarrassed," said Pippen. "We'd look up into the stands and see people yawning." Until sixth man Toni Kukoc took over. The Bulls forward scored 18 of his 31 points in the fourth. O'Neal was held scoreless in the period, and the game went into overtime. Pippen capped a magnificent 35-point performance with a driving layup with 42.7 seconds left in OT, and the Bulls held on, 129-123, for their most spectacular win of the young season.
As Jackson had said at the start, the Bulls needed challenges to keep them fired up. Payback was one such motivation, and Utah was the team's first rematch victim. "We don't lose very often, so each loss is significant," said three-point specialist Steve Kerr following the 102-89 win over the Jazz on Jan. 6. "We always try to get back at whoever it is. Certain guys on this team have to search for challengesMichael, Scottie, Dennisand getting revenge is definitely a challenge for them."
Silencing the league's upstartsparticularly Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' trash-talking rookiebecame another source of inspiration. During a mid-January stretch the Bulls, one of the league's oldest teams, played four games against some of the league's emerging stars. Twice they faced the Milwaukee Bucks, with 25-year-old Vin Baker and 24-year-old Glenn Robinson; they also took on the Washington Bullets' tandem of 23-year-olds, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, and the Minnesota Timberwolves' duo of Kevin Garnett, 20, and Stephon Marbury, 19. The Bulls won all four games.
"These teams try to throw everything they can at us," said Rodman, in his 11th NBA season. "But we're like a great fighter. We time our punches, we time our aggressiveness, and it pays off. Most young teams don't understand that there are 48 minutes in a game. You've got to play through good times and bad. Teams come in, get us down 16, 17, and they're so caught up thinking, We got 'em. But you're playing the Chicago Bulls. You're playing some of the greatest minds of the game."
At times Rodman didn't act as if he possessed one of those; it seemed instead as if some of that hair dye had seeped into his brain. On Jan. 15 in Minneapolis, in what became an infamous incident, he kicked a photographer in the groin. It was Rodman's most serious transgression, and his resulting 11-game suspension by the league served as another challenge for the Bulls. "Teams may think they're catching us at the right time, and certainly it will be more of a challenge without Dennis," Jordan said. "But if we can beat those teams without him, it will be an even bigger confidence boost for us." Fortunately, Longley, who had missed 22 games after separating his left shoulder, was back in the mix. He and forward Jason Caffey, who started during Rodman's suspension, picked up the rebounding load with help from Jordan and Pippen, and the Bulls went 9-2 during their Wormless stretch.
Jordan routinely looks for reasons to raise his game a notch, and New York coach Jeff Van Gundy became Jordan Enemy No. 1 when, a few days before a Jan. 21 Bulls-Knicks game, he told reporters that Jordan tended to "con" his opponents by befriending them off the court only to torch them on it. Reacting as if Van Gundy had insulted his mother, his grandmother, his country and North Carolina basketball, Jordan poured in 51 points and added a few choice words for Van Gundy on the sideline in an 88-87 Bulls win. Later in the month, Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl took a place on the enemies list when he opined that Jordan was afraid to go to the basket as often as he had in the past. Predictably, MJ lit up the Sonics with 45 points in a 91-84 Bulls win.
At the All-Star break Chicago stood at 42-6, with one fewer win than it had had at the same point in '95-96. After the break Rodman returned from his suspension, and the Bulls promptly won seven straight. The 70-win mark again seemed in sight.
But major injuries, which the Bulls had managed to avoid in previous championship years, now began to put that number in jeopardy. Kukoc, bothered by a sore right foot, missed 22 of the last 26 games. On March 25, Rodman sprained his left knee, which put him out for the rest of the regular season. Four days later backup center Bill Wennington went on the injured list with a ruptured tendon in his left foot. Weakened in the frontcourt, the Bulls turned to free-agent center/forward Brian Williams, who had turned down several offers over the summer and was just biding his time. Some wondered if Williams, who tends to swim against the tide, would disturb the Bulls' harmony. "Yeah, I'm a free spirit," Williams said, "but that in no way makes me eccentric beyond the capabilities of team chemistry."
The truth is, much more than a free spirit would be needed to disrupt the chemistry of the Bulls, a team that, after all, tolerated a cross-dressing power forward who tested everyone's patience. Chicago's mix worked because the playersfrom Pippen, the game's best second banana, to Kukoc, a certain starter on most any other teamsubordinated their egos and accepted their roles. The bench pitched in admirably, especially Caffey. On April 9 against the Indiana Pacers, he scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. "It's different than with Dennis," said Jordan after the team's 86-80 win. "We don't expect Caffey to come out with green hair and start throwing people around."
As the regular season neared its close, 70 wins was in reach. Four games remained, and the Bulls' record stood at 68-10. When Chicago fell to the Pistons 108-91 on April 13 in Detroit, the possibility of matching the previous year's 72 wins was closed. But the team bounced back the next night against the Raptors. Jordan had a triple double (30 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), his first since coming out of retirement more than two years earlier. The 117-100 win moved the Bulls to within one victory of 70.
Two days later the Heat dampened Chicago's hopes with a 102-92 win in Miami, setting the stage for a raucous finale against the archrival Knicks at the United Center. Before the game Jordan said, perhaps only half jokingly, that he might try to score 65 points to raise his season average to 30.0, a level he hadn't been below in a full season since his rookie year. But neither the Bulls nor Jordan reached their marks. The Knicks snapped Chicago's 32-game home winning streak with a tight 103-101 victory. Jordan was held to 33 points and finished with a 29.6 averagestill good enough for his ninth NBA scoring title.
For months the Bulls had downplayed the significance of 70 wins, but their disappointment was apparent when they fell just short. An air of invincibility had surrounded the team throughout the season: No matter how desperately their opponents gunned for them, no matter how many key players were banged up, no matter how many times Rodman lost his head, no matter how cloudy Jackson's future seemed or how unsettling was the prospect of a last hurrah, the champions always seemed to live up to their own lofty expectations. Had that image of invincibility been tarnished by the team's failure to reach 70 victories?
Jackson was amused by the talk that three losses in the final four regular-season games had somehow rendered the Bulls "beatable" in the playoffs. A 69-13 record? He'd take that. The coach rode off into the playoffs on his Harley, a contented man.