In good times and bad, of course, Jordan's offensive dominance has been the scab that the Bulls can't stop picking. After Jordan's 64-point night, Pippen made pointed reference to the fact that Jordan had collected only one assist. Grant is on record as saying he wants out when his contract expires after next season unless a greater offensive role can be found for him. "Horace is like Oak [the New York Knicks' Charles Oakley] was when he was with us," said Jordan. "Oak would talk about how he wanted to shoot more and get in the offense more just because somebody would start talking to him about it off the court. Same thing here. 'Horace, you can do this, you can do that.' But you know what? Just like Oak, when Horace Grant is on the basketball court, all he thinks about is winning and doing the things he does best, like rebounding, defending and running the floor."
Indeed, the subtle locker room tension that evolves out of Jordan's celebrity evaporates when the Bulls are on the court. While Jordan was lighting up the Jazz for 20 fourth-quarter points during a dramatic 96-92 come-from-behind win on Feb. 1, there was Pippen shaking his fist and urging him on. During quick team huddles on the court, there is Grant, goggles raised, hanging on every word Jordan says. And there was Grant, after the Clipper victory, perfectly content with having collected as many offensive rebounds as field goal attempts (11). Whatever else can be said about the Bulls, jealousies and personal rivalries do not affect their effort between the lines.
Injuries do, though. Guard John Paxson will miss at least three more weeks after having undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Feb. 2, and Jordan must find a way to better mesh his game with that of B.J. Armstrong, now his back-court mate. It's no secret that Jordan prefers Paxson's outside-oriented talents to Armstrong's driving style. But Armstrong is a major talent who is not afraid to take crunch-time shots. "A big-time player who makes big-time shots" is how Utah guard John Stockton describes him. Jordan must give B.J. some room to grow.
Center Bill Cartwright, meanwhile, has struggled all season with what Bach calls " NBA disease"—tendinitis—in his 35-year-old knees. Jackson, in fact, is contemplating giving Cartwright a full month off before the playoffs. Jordan has always had trouble saying nice things about his aging teammate, but he has come to appreciate two things about Cartwright's game: the ugly turnaround jumper that fits comfortably into the triangle, and the clumsy but tenacious body-to-body defense he applies on opposing big men.
Pivot people abound on the Chicago bench, but none can exactly replace Cartwright. Heir apparent Scott Williams can run the floor, rebound and raise a lot of hell with his frenetic style, but he is not, as Jordan puts it, "a known offensive guy." Stacey King could easily replace Cartwright as a go-to jump-shooter, but his defense is nonexistent. One Chicago insider has nicknamed him David Copperfield "because of his uncanny ability to disappear on defense." Finally, Jackson considers Will Perdue, who does nothing terribly wrong but nothing terribly right, too soft and unaggressive.
With top reserve Rodney McCray limited by an injury to his right knee (he's due back from the injured list soon), the most important backup player down the stretch is likely to be 10-year veteran Darrell Walker, whom Chicago will most assuredly sign for the remainder of the season, after having signed him to a second 10-day contract last week. Soon after Walker reported to the Bulls, Jordan grabbed his new teammate's hands and said, "Lemme check those fingernails." Walker is known as a tenacious defender who leaves marks when he rakes for the ball in heavy traffic; Bach calls him the Leopard. Because Jordan, at 6'6", is big enough to guard most small forwards and the 6'4" Walker can defend against the killer shooting guards, Jackson can use a quick, pressure-oriented three-guard alignment ( Armstrong is No. 3) from time to time.
Still, whether it be Walker outside or Williams inside, recent additions to the Bulls must learn the nuances of the triangle offense, and that can be difficult. "You see guys literally looking down at their feet out there," says Perdue. "Sometimes it looks like a dance class instead of a basketball game."
And sometimes the Bulls have looked like the Kings instead of the kings of the NBA. "I knew it was going to be tough, but, frankly, it's been tougher than I thought," said the occupant of the Michael Jordan Suite. "We can win it all, but it's not going to be easy. We're physically tired, we're mentally fatigued, and we're a little out of sync from time to time. You know what, though? I think we'll be fine when we see the sight of a challenge in the playoffs. We know the toughest part is these 82 games." He brightened. "After that? It's rejuvenation time."
Jackson has similar thoughts. "I anticipated the worst, and so far, honestly, it hasn't been that," he says. "But it hasn't been easy, either. And since we're going for a third championship, which is something very, very rare, it shouldn't be."
Jackson smiles wryly. "The fourth one," he says, "will be a lot easier."