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Bulls belief dwindles internally as playoff hopes dwindle


CHICAGO — Belief is diminishing among players inside the Bulls locker room.

Chicago moved closer to the end of the playoffs after a crushing 125-122 home loss to Indiana on Sunday. And after watching another much-needed win slip away in familiar fashion, one of the faces of the franchise conceded that with just 17 games left, it’s hard to see the Bulls turning the corner.

“There are maybe 30 games,” said Bulls center Nikola Vučević Athleticism“but now it’s hard to see it that way.”

The Bulls (29-36) fell to a tie with the Pacers in the standings but sit in 12th place after Indiana won the series 3-1 and head-to-head tiebreaker. The two edge Washington by two games for 10th place and the final spot in the Play-In tournament.

“It’s not really up to us anymore,” Vučević said. “I mean, it does. We have to win. But we depend on the people in front of us, on their behavior. So it’s hard to say that after 65 games we haven’t figured it out. It’s hard to believe something will just (click) like that. We will see. We will continue to fight, continue to hope that something happens. But it is obvious that we have put ourselves in a very difficult situation now.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan added: “And our schedule is tough as well.”

Although accurate, Sunday again showed that the Bulls’ opponent didn’t really matter. The Pacers won for just the sixth time since Jan. 11. Three of their wins during that span have been against the Bulls. In the first two, Indiana recovered from 20-point deficits.

In Sunday’s final showdown, the Pacers removed any doubt that they are simply the better team – which says a lot about how the Bulls have turned sideways this season.

Chicago entered this season eager to contest a second consecutive playoff appearance while aiming to advance beyond the first round. Instead, the Bulls haven’t been .500 since Nov. 7, when they were 6-6. No matter the struggle against the Eastern Conference heavyweights, the Bulls rank a distant fourth in the five-team Central Division.

Milwaukee and Cleveland are the four seeds heading into what they each hope will be deep playoffs. Detroit is the only team to keep the Bulls from the distinction of worst in the division. But for their 15 league wins, the Pistons have a ticket to the Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson draw in the upcoming NBA draft. Meanwhile, the Bulls owe their draft pick to Orlando if he falls outside the top four as part of their deal to acquire Vučević.

The way the Pacers, led by slippery star guard Tyrese Haliburton, have passed the Bulls should be an alarming dose of reality. Haliburton, 23, scored a team-high 29 points on 11 of 17 shots, including the game-winning 3 with 2.7 seconds left. He added 11 assists to just three turnovers, chopping up the Bulls for 37 minutes, while playing on a bruised and bloody right knee.

When Haliburton wasn’t leading the team, Pacers point guard TJ McConnell upped the scoring, orchestrating his team better than Bulls guards Patrick Beverley and Ayo Dosunmu combined. The youth, athleticism and array of talent that rounded out Haliburton – Bennedict Mathurin, Chris Duarte, Andrew Nembhard, Isaiah Jackson and Jordan Nwora – only exposed how bright the future of the Pacers is. compared to a picture of the Bulls that looks pretty grim.

Donovan foreshadowed Sunday’s result before the game when he detailed why the Pacers were giving his Bulls trouble.

“They have the ability to shoot the ball from 3 of a lot of different people,” he said. “They have a high level of skill with a lot of their perimeter players, and I would even put (Myles) Turner in that category because at 5 he can shoot 3s and can also facilitate. It is therefore a very explosive offensive team that can really start. And there may be droughts or lulls in the game where they don’t, but you can be assured that they’re going to keep playing real fast and trying to generate a lot of things. It takes a lot of stamina to do it possession after possession against them.

The Bulls knew exactly what the Pacers brought, but despite their age and accolades advantages, despite their desperation, they couldn’t pull off a crucial win on their home turf.

Listening to Pacers coach Rick Carlisle before the game revealed insights into the possible reasons.

“Development is a tricky word,” Carlisle said. “Because a lot of people think development just means putting young players out there and letting them play, letting them play through the mistakes and just letting them play. And if you do that without establishing accountability for selflessness, for defensiveness, for the little things that are important to building championship habits, then you’re not growing. You just put guys out there and let them get stats. And it can be very dangerous.

At this point, one can’t help but wonder what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.

(Photo of Nikola Vučević defending Tyrese Haliburton on Sunday: David Banks/USA Today)

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