A couple of weeks ago, it appeared that the Cleveland Cavaliers were a cinch to win the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The three teams that had a chance to beat them, New York, Indiana and Chicago, were missing their best players because of injuries.
Suddenly, the picture has changed. The Bulls have Michael Jordan back, the Pacers may get Clark Kellogg shortly and the Cavaliers are in a slump. On the other hand, the Knicks lost Patrick Ewing for the rest of the season and must wait until next year.
Although the Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, 125-116, in overtime Saturday night at Chicago, nothing could take away their optimism. Jordan, out since he broke his foot Oct. 29, played 13 minutes and scored 12 points. Apparently, he came through his first game in more than four months without incident.
"My chest is burning," Jordan said, "but I feel like a new man."
The Bulls led most of the way. But, in the closing seconds of regulation, Ricky Pierce sank a three-pointer and Mike Glenn a two-pointer to send the game into overtime.
Terry Cummings scored 11 of his 34 points in overtime to enable the Bucks to end a three-game losing streak and remain four games ahead of Atlanta in the Central Division race.
"I wasn't about to use Jordan in the overtime," Bull Coach Stan Albeck said. "He has to build up his physical conditioning, then he'll build up his minutes."
The Cavaliers, who have lost eight of their last 11, lead the battle for eighth overall with a 25-42 record. Indiana is 24-45, and the Bulls are 24-44.
The Bulls took some heat for allowing Jordan to return.
As soon as Jordan entered the game halfway through the second period, he drove the baseline. He missed the shot but was fouled and sank a free throw.
The Bulls have 14 games remaining and, if Jordan is able to play, they figure to win often enough to make the playoffs.
Indiana 105, Washington 100--Herb Williams had 27 points and 12 rebounds at Indianapolis to lead the Pacers to their fourth victory over the Bullets this season without a loss.
The second victory in a row for the Pacers put them just two games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East's battle for the final playoff spot.
In the four wins over the Bullets, Williams had 114 points and 51 rebounds.
New Jersey 102, Cleveland 100--Buck Williams sank a twisting 10-foot shot from the left baseline with five seconds left at Richfield, Ohio, to break a 100-100 tie. At the buzzer, Williams then blocked John Bagley's layup to preserve the victory.
It was the eighth loss in the last 11 games for the Cavaliers, and their fourth defeat in a row at home.
Atlanta 106, New York 101--Dominique Wilkins was only 6 for 18 from the field at New York, but he kept driving to the basket and going to the free-throw line. He was 17 for 18 from the line.
The Hawks, coming off a depressing loss to the powerful Boston Celtics, were lethargic most of the game. They scored the last six points after trailing, 101-100.
Dallas 108, Utah 98--Derrick Harper scored 24 points and Rolando Blackman had 23, 10 of them in the last quarter, to lead the Mavericks to their seventh win in the last nine games.
Adrian Dantley scored 23 of his 33 points in the first half to help the Jazz build a 56-33 lead.
The Mavericks caught up in the third period and pulled away in the last quarter. Harper scored the Mavericks' last nine points.