But the Magic's internal conflicts may not be the biggest obstacle to beating the Bulls, who need to win just four of their final seven games to achieve an NBA record 70 victories. It will be impossible for Orlando, or any team, to keep Chicago from the title without beating the Bulls at home—and, until Monday night, that hadn't happened all season. Chicago, which clinched the home court advantage throughout the playoffs with Sunday's victory, came within a whisker of becoming the first team in NBA history to finish a regular season undefeated at home, eclipsing the 1985-86 Celtics' 40-1 record at Boston Garden. "I've analyzed it, and I think I've figured out the reasons the Bulls are so good at home," says Toronto Raptors coach Brendan Malone. "They're named Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc...."
Even if Chicago's home dominance seems easy to explain—"With all their talent," says Houston Rockets guard Clyde Drexler, "they could probably play home games on the moon and still win them all"—it is ironic in light of how several Bulls moaned about leaving cozy Chicago Stadium for the cavernous United Center last season. Jordan even joked that he wouldn't mind if the new arena were blown up.
The Bulls made a few subtle adjustments this season to get comfortable in their new home. Coach Phil Jackson had the benches switched so his players, would sit at the west end of the arena, as they had at Chicago Stadium, and he convinced the marketing department to remove the billboards that bordered the court opposite the benches so the crowd could be moved closer to the action. And though the raucous atmosphere that earned Chicago Stadium its Madhouse on Madison nickname will never be re-created, Rodman's antics have helped restore some of the rowdiness to the crowd that was missing last season. "A year ago we probably felt like this was the worst place for us to play," says Pippen. "But now we're so confident at home that the odds of anyone coming in there and beating us arc slim and none."
Even Jordan, who complained last season about shooting problems caused by the supposed tightness of the rims and the vast space behind the backboards, has warmed to the place. "The ambience is too nice in here [in the Bulls' locker room], and it's too nice in the other [visitors'] locker room," he said in January. "I haven't seen a rat since I've been in here."
Until recently one of the most tangible differences between the Bulls at home and on the road had been the play of swingman Toni Kukoc, whose best games were almost invariably at the United Center. But forward Scottie Pippen's aching back and sore knee and ankle, which forced him to miss five games, and Rodman's six-game suspension for head-butting referee Ted Bernhardt, propelled Kukoc out of his sixth-man role and into the starting lineup. That's where Kukoc clearly prefers to be, and he has responded with his best, most consistent string of performances in his three seasons with the Bulls. He had started 13 straight games at week's end, averaging 19.2 points in that span—raising his season average by 7.5 points a game. "This is the most comfortable I've felt on the floor for a long time," he says.
The soft-spoken Kukoc, who often looks timid on the court, even had the temerity during his run as a starter to don a pair of Jordan's Nike sneakers with the patent-leather trim. Jordan gave him his blessing, plus a warning: "Don't embarrass my shoes." Kukoc hasn't. Instead, he has created a delicate situation for Jackson, who will have to decide whether to make Kukoc a permanent starter and bring Rodman off the bench in the playoffs, as he did for the first few games after Rodman's suspension, or use Kukoc as his top reserve.
"Toni can start the rest of the way," Rodman says. "I can adjust to anything." But this is the same Rodman who is so conscious of his rebounding statistics that he has teammate Jack Haley keep him apprised of his total during timeouts and who often makes no secret of his disgust when he is taken out of a game. Fiddling with Rodman's role or his minutes—especially at playoff time, when he has been at his most outrageous the past two seasons—could set off the kind of meltdown the Bulls dread. Rodman's rebounding may be one of the Bulls' greatest strengths, but his psyche is perhaps their greatest weakness. "I'm not worried," says Jackson. "We're not here to save Dennis. He has to save himself. But we'll stand up for Dennis just as he stands up for us."
With the notable exception of the head butt, the only significant distraction Rodman has caused in Chicago has been on the Kennedy Expressway, where a 32-foot-high mural of his head, complete with hair that was to be repainted every time Rodman got a new dye job, had to be painted over last week. The mural adorned a warehouse wall overlooking the expressway, and motorists were tying up traffic by slowing down to look or pulling over to take pictures. The real Rodman insists he won't cause any difficulties for the Bulls. "I won't be a problem before the playoffs, or in the playoffs," he says. "They'll see. I'm going to go out, do my job and help the team. And then everybody that says Dennis Rodman can't control himself is going to have to sing a different tune. I'm not even going to let the referees bother me. Life's too short."
Rodman isn't the only Bull who has received extra attention from the NBA office in New York lately. Opposing teams have been sending in videotapes of Jordan's getting away with what they consider illegal moves, including one of his favorites, in which he slaps the defender's hand off his hip when he drives. Jordan says he has been told that that won't be allowed anymore, and he will have to be more careful about his spin move, which will be called a travel more often. His baseline spin was even included on a tape of illegal moves that the league sent to every team last summer. "You want to see some walks?" says Jackson. "Let's take some other players' moves apart. Patrick Ewing does it half a dozen times a game, at least. Michael does it maybe once, and he can't get away with one of his signature moves, one of the best moves in basketball."
But it will take more than closer scrutiny from the referees to stop Jordan. Even Jackson seems powerless to do it. In an attempt to conserve Jordan's energy for the playoffs, Jackson suggested that if the Bulls record their 70th win before the end of the regular season, Jordan should sit out the remaining games. Jordan respectfully declined. His 38.3 minutes per game leads the team, and through Sunday he had started all 74 games, but he dismisses the theory that he is expending too much of himself in meaningless regular-season games. He says he has learned to rest while on the floor by turning the offense over to Pippen or Kukoc for a few minutes while he acts as a decoy.