PHOENIX -- While champagne corks still were popping in the Chicago Bulls dressing room Sunday night, pro basketball experts already were assessing the team's place among the elite teams in NBA history.
In winning their third consecutive NBA title, the Bulls just had accomplished what only the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics (1959 to 1966) and George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers (1952 to 1954) had done before.
Coach Phil Jackson argued strongly on behalf of his team.
"I'm not about to compare us with the great teams from different eras," he said. "But one should have to consider that, back in the '50s, and in the '60s and '70s, the champion had to survive three playoff rounds. This team had to battle through four rounds three straight years and got it done."
Michael Jordan, who was championship round MVP for the third straight time by averaging a record 41 points, also offered a distinction between the Bulls and threepeat champions of yesteryear.
"There were only 10 NBA teams when the Minneapolis Lakers were dominant, and eight or nine when the Celtics had their dynasty," said Jordan, sporting a "Four Play" slogan on his hat with the future in mind. "Now, there are 27 teams and a lot more parity in the league. It presents a much bigger obstacle to winning three in a row."
But critics such as Magic Johnson, who led the Lakers to five titles, and former coach Jack Ramsay, who guided Portland (and Bill Walton) to its only crown in 1977, say the Bulls would be just another team without Jordan.
"I think both the Lakers and Celtics teams of the '80s were superior to the Bulls," said Johnson, an NBC analyst at the finals.
"When Michael struggles, the Bulls don't win. On our Laker team, if Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] struggled or I struggled, there was still a James Worthy or Jamaal Wilkes to turn to. We also had a much stronger bench. It was the same with the Celtics. A Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson or Robert Parish could find ways to win if Larry Bird was struggling."
Johnson argued that Scottie Pippen would not be an All-Star forward and John Paxson, who hit the game-winning three-pointer Sunday with 3.9 seconds left, might not even be in the league if Jordan were not their teammate.
"All his supporting players are better because of all the attention he attracts," Johnson said. "But the Bulls win only because Michael won't let them lose."
Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, also gave the Bulls grudging respect.
"Any time a team wins three straight, it's a great accomplishment," he said. "But I don't think they could compete against the great Lakers or Celtics teams or even the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers when they had Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Cunningham.
"This is almost strictly a Michael show. You've got a lot of guys on this team who can't score and yet play a lot of minutes."
As an example, Ramsay needed only to point to the fourth quarter of Game 6, when several of the Bulls -- Horace Grant, in particular -- seemed reluctant to shoot the ball in a pressure situation.
Chicago failed to score for almost six minutes while the Suns, also struggling offensively, rallied to rebound from an 87-79 deficit at the start of the quarter.
Jordan then scored nine points for the Bulls, his last basket a weaving layup through almost the entire Phoenix defense to pull his team within 98-96 with 39 seconds left.
Paxson, duplicating his series-ending act against the Lakers in 1991 that produced the Bulls' first title, found himself open behind the three-point line and did what comes naturally.
"I've been practicing and making that shot all my life," Paxson said.
If last year's repeat trip was, in Jackson's words, an "odyssey," this year's voyage to a third title was just as perilous.
First, there was the fatigue factor with the team's two mainstays, Jordan and Pippen, spending last summer with the Olympic Dream Team in Barcelona, Spain.
Then there were injuries that sidelined starting center Bill Cartwright and Paxson at the start of the season. And, finally, a huge distraction arose in the playoffs, when Jordan's off-court gambling was in the spotlight.
"It hasn't been an easy road off the court," said Paxson. "I don't know how we managed. Maybe the Lakers and Pistons who failed to win three straight were more fragile than us. Maybe the distractions kept us close, kept us from bickering."
Grant said: "It's just like a marriage. You're always going to have problems, but you try and keep it a fun atmosphere."
But changes might be in order for the Bulls next season after winning three straight with basically the same nucleus.
The most notable addition will be Toni Kukoc, rated the top player in Europe, whose passing and ball-handling skills should serve as a perfect complement to Jordan and Pippen and give the Bulls' triple-post offense more pizazz.
"We're still very young, except for Cartwright ," said general manager Jerry Krause.
"And I expect B. J. Armstrong, Scott Williams and Stacey King to continue to get better. But adding Kukoc will give us so many different looks because he can play point guard, shooting guard or small forward for us."
As for the Suns, "they still have to learn how to win," Johnson said, "and this experience in the finals will certainly help. The Lakers had to learn from the Celtics, the Pistons from the Lakers and then the Bulls from the Pistons. It's a maturing process."
Suns playmaker Kevin Johnson, whose last-second shot at a game-winner Sunday was blocked by Grant, concurred.
"We lost all three home games, and when you do that, you don't deserve to be world champions," he said. "We had a great year, but now we'll only be remembered for helping the Bulls make history."