The opening game of the NBA Finals in Chicago is still three days away, but the psychological warfare between the defending champion Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers began months ago.
Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, whose strong finishes in games 5 and 6 helped eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, fired the first salvo against the Blazers back in February when the two conference leaders began posturing for a showdown.
"They're talented, and we know it," said Jordan, whose Bulls swept the two-game season series, "but it takes more than talent in this league."
Magic Johnson made a similar assessment of the Blazers a year ago after the Lakers had upset Portland in six games in the Western Conference finals. The Blazers had breezed through the regular season with 63 victories, but wilted under the pressure of the conference championship series.
Questioning the Blazers' collective basketball IQ has become a favorite pastime of NBA rivals. Said one Western Conference executive: "They're a lot better than all of us. There's no way we should be able to compete with them. Talent doesn't beat them. Their brains beat them."
The Blazers have heard it all before, but ask their critics how they managed to beat the Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz with so little brainpower.
"I don't worry about silencing critics," said Blazers coach Rick Adelman. "We didn't doubt ourselves from Day One of this season. Let everyone else have their perceptions about this team. We know what we're capable of doing."
Adelman and his players believe the team has matured significantly since being roughed up by the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 championship series.
"People have a tendency to expect more of us because of our athletes," said veteran power forward Buck Williams, who brought the Blazers toughness and floor leadership after being acquired from the New Jersey Nets in 1989. "But we understand that you have to translate athletic ability into wins, and that's what we've done the past three years."
The Blazers' explosive fast break, featuring guards Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter and small forward Jerome Kersey, was slowed by the half-court tactics of the Pistons and Lakers the past two years. But the Bulls, who play a similar up-tempo game with Jordan and Scottie Pippen, will likely be a more inviting challenge.
"I believe our half-court game is effective," said Drexler, runner-up to Jordan for the league's MVP honors. "But if your running game is better, which one would you use?"
The Blazers are likely less fatigued than the Bulls, who were forced to play an extremely physical seven-game second-round series with the Knicks and then were sorely tested by the Cavaliers.
"The toughest part of repeating is the mental approach," said Jordan, who struggled with 5-for-20 shooting before scoring 16 points in the final quarter of Friday night's clinching victory over Cleveland.
"Mentally, you have to have the same hunger and mental attitude you had when you won it the first time, but that hasn't always been the case this season. The Knicks series woke us up. They proved we weren't invincible."
The Bulls had more than their share of distractions this season.
Last summer Jordan did not attend a team visit to the White House and power forward Horace Grant accused the team of operating under a double standard.
Jordan's alleged put-downs of his less-celebrated teammates in "The Jordan Rules" -- a book about the 1990-91 championship year -- created more internal pressure.
But coach Phil Jackson maintained control and the Bulls (67-15) came within two regular-season wins of the all-time NBA mark set by the 1971-72 Lakers.
After games in Chicago on Wednesday and Friday, the best-of-seven series shifts to Portland for three games, then back to Chicago.