Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls
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play-in by default!

The Bulls did it for the first time in a long while: beat a good team having an off day. I suppose there was a victory over the Blazers back when, but otherwise it was bordering on a statistical anomaly that this team could play good enough but not actually win a damn game if they weren’t favored. Good teams have bad games all the time in the NBA, yet the Bulls didn’t take advantage until Sunday’s win over the Durant+Harden-less Brooklyn Nets.

I don’t think the Bulls losing 4 games after their trade deadline additions is too concerning, it was more strange. But it does reinforce the urgency and emotional investment in springtime NBA that we haven’t had in years. The Bulls are, hold for gasps, trying to win, so this all does matter now.

The schedule was very tough: all games on the road, against quality opponents, and like most of this season all tightly bound together. But it’s looking better now, per Tankathon the 17th hardest remaining schedule.

And no real damage was done, because it’s the East play-in. An extremely sad race.

OK, so the 4th seed is more out of reach now at 5 games out, and even getting to the 6th to avoid the play-in requires making up 4 games of ground which is difficult to do with only 24 games remaining.

But the play-in is likely assured. They’re 1.5 games up on the Raptors, but that team has been a mess for weeks, lost talent at the trade deadline, some bad losses against the Pistons and Thunder, star-coach beef, and now Kyle Lowry is out with a foot injury. The Pacers ruled out TJ Warren for the season, the Knicks the same with Mitchell Robinson, the poor Hornets lost LaMelo Ball and now Gordon Hayward as well. Boston should mutiny after they gifted Daniel Theis to the Bulls.

This brings to mind how relatively fortunate the Bulls had been with injury, in that their most indispensable players in Zach LaVine and Thad Young have been healthy, and they added Vucevic to provide some cover when they’re not. So the variable of LaVine’s ankle slowing him and causing to miss his first game of the season was not foreseen and is still a main point of vulnerability. But he returned and looked better against Brooklyn.

There are still more minor injury concerns with Coby White and Garrett Temple, which shouldn’t be huge losses but it is causing a cascading problem of Billy Donovan avoiding his new wing additions and instead playing a lot of Valentine, Arcidiacono, and Markkanen at small forward. But even that looked to be somewhat rectified on Sunday, with Troy Brown Jr. getting 28 minutes.

So I am feeling good calling the play-in locked-in. It is definitely more correct than starting to have a lingering eye towards the lottery odds and how the Bulls can keep the 2021 draft pick sent to Orlando. There was specific reporting on the protections that look a bit more favorable to the Bulls: both picks are top-4 protected for the first year, then top-3 for second, then convert to 2 second-rounders. If 2021 pick gets conveyed in 2022, then the 2023 pick protections shift to 2024. So it’s tempting to joke that maybe Donovan is tanking with these lineups, but these picks not conveying on schedule is still extremely unlikely to where it’s not ‘worth’ fretting over.

Altogether, it’s fun to make it officially schedule-watching season. The Bulls are facing standings-rivals Pacers, Raptors, and Hawks this week, followed by a very favorable two weeks. There are going to be all sorts of contests down the stretch where the opponent will have given up or are strategically resting guys or what have you. Getting wins matters more than finding practice time together with the new group. They finally got over the hump yesterday, and I expect it to keep going. And if it doesn’t, at least that’ll be interesting to talk about too.

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