Jordan, Bulls eye new limit 70-victory season? With its 33-3 record, Chicago is on pace to win the most games in NBA history.

January 21, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

The game has come so easily to him during his 10-year career that Michael Jordan has at times had to reach for something to motivate him.

Early in his career with the Chicago Bulls, the motivation was a scoring title. Later, it was to establish himself as the game's top defensive player.

But is winning 70 games, something that no NBA team has done, a goal that ignites the man perceived as the best player ever?

"In some ways, it's an added burden because people expect to win a championship, without a doubt," Jordan said. "And if it doesn't win a championship, what difference does it make?"

Winning an NBA title was the only thing on Jordan's mind when he returned to the Bulls near the end of last season. Except Jordan found that he couldn't just walk onto the court after such a long layoff and get the job done. He looked ordinary in many of his 17 regular-season games, and was outplayed by Orlando's Nick Anderson when the Bulls lost to the Magic in the second round of the playoffs.

This season is different. Jordan is all the way back, leading the league in scoring. Scottie Pippen has been asked to do less and is benefiting more. And the Bulls -- pounded on the boards last season and particularly in the playoff series against the Magic -- made perhaps their biggest improvement when they acquired Dennis Rodman from the San Antonio Spurs.

Yet, despite the Bulls' 33-3 record going into today's nationally .. televised game against the Detroit Pistons, Jordan is reluctant to compare this team to the group that won three straight NBA titles before his "retirement."

"I think it's surprising that we have as much unity and as much rhythm as we have for not being together as long," Jordan said. "But I don't think it's quite as good as it was back then, from a

team concept.

"Right now we have a lot of individual aspects to our game, and we go out and excel at it. But back then, even though we had talent, we had to rely a little bit more on a system. And this team hasn't reached that point yet."

The lack of chemistry might exist because Jordan and Pippen are the only two players remaining from the team that averaged 61 regular-season wins during its title run from 1991 to 1993.

"Then Horace Grant controlled the boards, and was more of a scorer than Rodman," Pippen said. "And Bill [Cartwright] had a reputation of knocking people out and clogging the lane, more so than Luc Longley, who, while younger and trying to establish himself, is known as more of a softer center. But other than that, our team is pretty much the same because we have guys who are playing at the top of their games."

Less is more for Pippen

Nobody more so than Pippen, who may be the best all-around player in the league -- even with Jordan back. When Jordan retired and Grant went to the Magic, Bulls coach Phil Jackson made a huge request of Pippen: to lead the team in scoring, rebounds and assists. Pippen did just that, and led the league in steals, on his way to being named to the All-NBA first team. The step into stardom was complete for Pippen, who was criticized heavily two years ago for pulling himself out of a playoff game when the final play wasn't called for him.

"I think he's gone through a period where he has had to deal with a lot of things that he didn't want to deal with," Jordan said. "He had to experience it for two years, and without anyone to shelter him, which is what I did for him. It's a tough responsibility, but it's helped him mature to be a better person, and a better basketball player."

Because he has been asked to do less this season, Pippen actually has maintained numbers similar to last season's.

"It's a tremendous feeling, that I don't have to go out and play as hard as I had to last season," Pippen said. "I have Michael, who's going to score, wants to score, loves to score. I have Dennis, who's going to rebound, loves to rebound. I feel a lot more relaxed because I can go out and play and let my talent kind of fall into place around them."

The Worm turns out OK

How Rodman would fit into the team was the main concern. David Robinson calls Rodman the most intense person he ever played with, yet Rodman's antics during the season and playoffs ruined any chances of the Spurs reaching the NBA Finals.

Before a recent game, Rodman was sitting at his locker, and for a good 30 minutes not a teammate uttered a single word to him. But then again, with his multiple tattoos, pierced body parts and ever-changing hair, he doesn't have a lot in common with the other Bulls -- other than the desire to win.

"I'm very comfortable, because we don't give a damn what anybody does off the court as long as we get the job done on the court," Rodman said.

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