Brutal stretch of schedule will provide another round of tests for Bulls

The calendar gets real ugly now.

Billy Donovan has searched it for breaks, looked up and down for small cracks to get back into the lab and get some much needed work in, but the Bulls coach knows the reality of the situation.

Twenty-two games over the next 36 days, and playing six back-to-backs in that span?

An already taxing season is about to get even rougher.

“What we’ve got to try and do is … this is unique just because they put some games in that we had postponed, and some of them are here before the All-Star Game which makes things condensed,” Donovan said, when discussing the schedule between now and the All-Star Weekend. “You got to try and balance, ‘How do we continue to get better and improve where maybe we can’t get on the floor and do things physically?’ There’s just not the days in between games. And how do we try and keep guys fresh?”

First things first? The getting on the floor issue for some practice time.

Good luck with that for Donovan and his staff. The next week alone is ugly for the Bulls, playing five games in the next seven days.

Donovan could try and sneak a practice or two in next week, but that would be rough. Monday’s game in Memphis is an afternoon tip-off, so the following day — Jan. 18 — works because the Bulls are at home against the Cavaliers a day later.

But Donovan also admitted that he’ll have to check with his medical staff on the usage of his players, especially because of the expected intensity this week puts on the table.

Monday was an off-day for the Bulls, with the Pistons in town for the Tuesday appetizer. Then it’s an ESPN game against the Nets on Wednesday, another off day following the back-to-back, and the Warriors in town on Friday — again for another nationally televised game.

Off to Boston for a Saturday night showdown, another off day after a back-to-back, and then the game against the Grizzlies.

That’s three games against very good NBA teams, and one underachieving team thrown in the mix.

The stress put on Donovan’s “Big Three” of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic will be monitored, with the coach admitting there were no plans to rest guys or fall on the load management sword. Not yet at least.

Everything will remain in play, with Donovan pointing out the importance of communication between staff and player.

So how will the coach get the time to fix a defense he’s seen slipping the last month without practice time? It won’t be easy, but it definitely needs fixing. Over the nine-game winning streak, Donovan watched his defensive rating rank 20th in that time, slipping out of the top 10 and down to 13th (108.5) to start this week.

His offense is still in a good spot at fifth overall (112), but Donovan knows that the teams that are serious contenders tend to rank in the top 10 in rating on both ends of the floor.

“There’s a bigger picture coming,” Donovan said. “As you start to build out who you are, I still think there’s room for growth from our team.”

What works in Donovan’s favor will be his locker room. He has high-character veterans that don’t necessarily need the practice floor to fix things. This group has shown that simply getting the team together for a “breakfast meeting” rather than a shootaround has netted results.

Get the muffins and coffee ready.

“If we want to be the team we want to be and we know we can be, it has to be for 48 minutes,” Vucevic said. “We’ve shown we can do it.”

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