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72 reasons why Jordan's team best

It was one of those questions that probably had to be asked. But pondering a list of basketball accomplishments that could have lapped even the best of his contemporaries, Michael Jordan was not about to take the hyperbolic bait.

It was April 16, 1996, in the visitors locker room in the Bradley Center, and as far as Jordan was concerned, another annoying night spent fighting off a Milwaukee Bucks team that had no right to be this pesky.

"The first NBA championship. The [NCAA] championship," Jordan began to tick off. "The Olympic gold medal in '84. The second NBA title. The third NBA title. The second gold medal. Draft day.

"And then 70 wins."

He had been asked to rank this moment, when the Bulls had just surpassed the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers and set a new record for most victories in a regular season. And clearly, Jordan was not ready to pop open the champagne that night.

But 70 victories was more than merely impressive, it was closer to surreal. Consider that if the Miami Heat, whom the Bulls host Wednesday night at the United Center and who currently have won 27 games in a row, win every game remaining on their regular-season schedule, they would still, at 68-14, be four victories shy of that Bulls team, which ended up at 72-10 (87-13 including the playoffs). They would also fall short of the 1996-97 Bulls, who finished 69-13.

"I don't think 72 wins will ever be broken," said Steve Kerr, TNT analyst for the NBA and NCAA tournament, and a member of that '95-96 Bulls team. "It's one of those records like Joe DiMaggio's [56-game hitting streak] or UCLA basketball [which won 88 consecutive games in the '70s], one of those numbers that's unreachable in my mind."

Toni Kukoc, who would win the NBA's Sixth Man Award for the Bulls that season, said the expectations were almost modest at the start.

"It's not like we started the season as this unbelievable team who knew we could beat anybody, so let's just go do it," he said. "We actually started out slow, let's play every game, get the best record we could, then we realized after a couple months that we're playing very good basketball and everything clicked."

Slow? The Bulls won 41 of their first 44 games, including 13- and 18-game streaks, before dropping two in a row at Denver and at Phoenix late in a West Coast road swing in early February. During that 44-game span, the Bulls won 15 games by 18 points or more. For the season, their margin of victory was 12.3 points (10.9 on the road).

After the two losses, they would lose five more games from Feb. 7 to April 21 -- the last three by one point each and the last two among their final eight games of the regular season with Phil Jackson reducing the minutes of his key players.

What the Heat have accomplished is amazing by any standards. But what the Bulls did that season was superior.

"Miami's streak is terrific and nobody over the last few years has put together anything close to that," said Neil Funk, the Bulls' television play-by-play announcer. "But the [1995-96] Bulls' level of excellence from day one in training camp through the playoffs is beyond what anybody has ever done and what I think anybody will ever do again.

"For them to win 72 and then win the championship, that's what validated the season as one of the greatest, if not the greatest."

The Heat now own the second-longest winning streak in American major professional sports, moving ahead -- with their victory in Orlando on Monday night -- of baseball's New York Giants (26 straight in 1916). They are six shy of matching the streak record set by the same Lakers team the Bulls surpassed in total victories. The Heat's average margin of victory this season is nine points (the Lakers' was 16).

"I talked to [Miami coach] Erik Spoelstra well before this streak," Kerr said, "and he said, 'The record I can't believe is the 72 wins you guys had,' because he knows how hard it is to maintain that level of play."

After extending their streak to 27 on Monday night in the second straight game the Heat played without an injured Dwyane Wade, LeBron James called his team "really rare. To be part of a team like this, we do not take it for granted."

Nor did the Bulls. But they had several things going for them during the 1995-96 season. Naturally, there was Jordan, refreshed and fired up after returning from his first retirement the previous spring only to lose in his first game back, then have the Bulls eliminated 4-2 in the second round of the playoffs by Orlando.

Related to that, Jackson said in an interview that year that he had been planning a much-needed sabbatical for the summer of '96, but that the return of Jordan re-energized both of them and made him think differently about extending his contract with the Bulls.

"Michael came back to basketball … because he wanted to pursue his career again and it was wonderful," Jackson said. "I came along, and my own revitalization for this year was great."

There was also the fact Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the only two players on the team to have won an NBA title in a Bulls uniform, and they were keen to have veterans like Ron Harper, Kerr, Luc Longley and, yes, Dennis Rodman, experience the same.

And then there was Rodman. The risk in trading (with San Antonio in exchange for Will Perdue) to obtain the eccentric former Piston was that Rodman would be a divisive force, his personality annoying old adversaries like Pippen and Jordan so much that the team would implode under the pressure.

"Instead," said Kukoc, "his work habits and basketball knowledge were so phenomenal and he played with so much passion. He recognized that he played for a team that knew exactly what was going on and what they were striving for. And any ego he had when he wanted to be not only a rebounder but a scorer, that was gone after he moved from Detroit.

"Dennis decided, 'I'm going to be recognized as the best rebounder, a great defender and part of a team.' He blended in right away. He was perfect for us."

The Bulls' defense held opponents that season to 92.9 points a game (86.8 in the playoffs), and Rodman, Pippen and Jordan were all named to the All-Defensive Team.

Like those Bulls and the current Heat, the 1971-72 Lakers had a powerful triumvirate in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. But Jordan never liked comparisons.

"Each of us played for different teams in different eras and had different levels of success," he said that day in Milwaukee. "It's unfair to all of us to compare."

Except in one obvious way. Both the 1971-72 Lakers and the 1995-96 Bulls would cap off spectacular regular seasons with NBA titles. Yet the Bulls were far from overconfident leading up to those playoffs.

"It was a good test for us," Jordan said after the Bulls' 70th victory. "We knew there would be a lot of pressure surrounding us. In the playoffs we know there will be pressure surrounding us every single game."

Of course Jordan's definition of pressure is a bit skewed.

"Here's the thing to remember," Funk said. "Much like Miami, every game the Bulls played that year was somebody's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. When everybody circles you on the calendar and then you still win, that's big-time. And if you think the target was on the Bulls' backs the year they won 72, how about the next year when they ended up winning 69?

"You don't want to say 'What if?' but if Phil was determined to get 73 that year, they could have. But again, their focus was on the playoffs."

Kerr said it wasn't until a 15-point win over the Lakers in L.A. on Feb. 2 that the Bulls truly realized they were something special.

"Magic [Johnson] came back that game and they were supposed to be a gauge for how good we were," Kerr recalled. "And we just took them apart. We were 41-3 and we felt that [19-9] the rest of the way doesn't seem that hard. We can actually do this.

"None of the players had brought it up before then. But then later in the season, Phil said, 'I'm kind of envisioning single-digit losses.' It was the only time I remember Phil referencing it."

The Heat, said Kukoc, are in an even better position than both the Lakers and the Bulls.

"Maybe to Michael and Scottie it was a different feeling because they had already been there," Kukoc said, "but for the rest of us, this was something new. I don't think you can compare [us to Miami]. Right now Miami is obviously playing great basketball but they also know each other and know how well they can play. They won the championship last year and have been in the Finals the last two.

"I don't think they have any doubts what is going to happen when the playoffs start. To them, I don't want to say this is a waste of time but I think they feel like, 'Let's get the regular season done with. Let's win another championship.'"

But until then?

"Stop it! Don't even compare …," said Bulls TV analyst Stacey King on the "Waddle & Silvy Show" on Tuesday. "You've got to do it a whole season to even be in the same conversation as that great Bulls team."