Last week, the Chicago Bulls posted the Eastern Conference standings on the bulletin board in their locker room. It’s a prominent focal point for a team barely in control of its destiny.
The Bulls are on the cusp of the last play-in spot, sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference after spending the last few weeks hovering between 10th and 12th. The brutal final stretch of the season – 15 games in 26 days going into Wednesday – will be decided by the league’s ninth toughest schedule, with the Bulls facing teams with a . 518 average winning percentage.
And unless the Bulls win all 15 games, their playoff hopes would be at least partially decided by the teams around them in the standings.
“They know exactly where we are, what’s going on,” said head coach Billy Donovan. “But we can’t be a bunch of guys who sit around looking at the scoreboard all the time, wanting someone else’s help when we’re not taking care of the things we have to take care of.”
The Eastern Conference’s seventh and 12th rounds are only 5 and a half games apart, leaving a path open for the final sprint of the next four weeks.
The Bulls are in mixed company regarding tiebreakers. They have a head-to-head advantage over the Washington Wizards, who entered 10th in the conference on Wednesday, although the Bulls have two games in hand. But last week the Bulls ceded the tiebreaker to the Indiana Pacers, who are one game behind the Bulls in 12th.
Point guard Zach LaVine said his teammates have reached the point in the season where every game is being tracked — either on their screens or with constant updates and notifications.
“We understand the positioning. We understand qualifying,” said LaVine. “All games are important.”
It’s unrealistic to expect any team to have a 15-0 streak. But for the Bulls, any streak would be an improvement.
They struggled to get wins – their longest winning streak is three games, while their longest losing streak is six.
Donovan and the players highlighted the same problem with the inability to extend winning patterns: a consistent lack of urgency. But with less than four weeks left in the season, the Bulls have no room to lack energy or motivation as they try to chase a postseason pass.
“You have to be really motivated and internally motivated, especially in this league, because it’s so hard to win,” said Donovan. “Every night is hard and it’s 82 games and they keep coming and you have to get to a place emotionally every night that is really hard to get to.
“We cannot afford to look at anything other than the standard we have to play. That is the goal.”
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