Bulls’ inability to beat anybody who’s anybody is the story of a season

Hope is a Chicago sports fan’s best friend. Some would say it’s their only friend, but why be cruel?

The hope Bulls fans are clinging to is that their team will be able to flip a switch when it matters most, which is to say, come playoff time in a few weeks. It’s a wonderful hope, a noble hope, but it’s not a hope based on anything tangible. The Bulls have had very little success against teams with winning records this season. Put a team in front of them with a losing record, however, and they turn into the 1995-96 Bulls.

Few people want to hear that sort of thing, especially after DeMar DeRozan’s 50-point performance in an overtime victory against the Clippers on Thursday night. They say: 50 points! I say: the 37-40 Clippers!

You might recall my Jan. 6 column, which rhapsodized that the Bulls didn’t have to apologize for who was on their schedule. They were rolling, remember? They were 25-10, had the best record in the Eastern Conference and had won eight games in a row. Sure, only two of the teams in that streak had winning records, and fine, if you wanted to be a stickler, the eight victims were a combined 47 games under .500. But the age-old wisdom that you can only beat the teams the schedule has given you seemed appropriate. Let’s see how they do against the league’s better teams, I wrote. With the way they were playing, there was reason enough to hope.

Since then, the Bulls have gone 20-22. In those 42 games, they were 7-15 against teams with winning records. They were 0-9 against opponents with better records than them.

Yikes! would be the appropriate response here.

DeRozan might not be the MVP candidate I thought he was a month or two ago, but he’s still the reason for most of the good things that have happened to the Bulls. He has turned more than a few losses into victories this season, including Thursday, when he scored a combined 27 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to beat those, yes, mediocre Clippers.

You say the Bulls had won three of their last four heading into Saturday’s game against Miami.

I say the Bulls’ next three games are against the Heat (49-28), the Bucks (48-28) and the Celtics (47-30), the top three seeds in the East. I say, uh-oh.

But even if they have success with that small sample, would it change anything in the postseason? I guess that’s where eternal hope elbows its way into the picture.

There’s no escaping that the Bulls have missed Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso for long stretches of the season due to injury, but it doesn’t explain their difficulties against good teams. When your Big Three is DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, it’s not supposed to matter who your Little Two is. That’s not a shot at the abilities of Ball and Caruso. It’s a recognition that the trio of DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic isn’t as big as we might have thought earlier.

The Bulls are a nice team, a fine team. But they’re not a great team, and we probably mistook their early light for heat. They’re not a good rebounding team, though that might have something to do with their league-low three-point attempts. Their defense, especially in the paint, has been subpar. Those kinds of deficiencies tend to show themselves against good opponents.

The unfortunate part is that the Bulls are a fetching 45-32 yet it’s impossible to stop looking at the mole on the tip of their nose. If the season ended today, they’d be the fifth seed in the East. In October, that would have sounded great. And if you didn’t know any better at the moment, you’d still say it was great. But there’s another story in that record, and it’s too meaningful to ignore. The Bulls haven’t been able to beat anybody who’s anybody.

Back to the concept of hope. If you believe that they’ll finally flip a switch after months of feeling blindly along the wall for it, what gives you that belief? It can’t be their performance against quality opponents this season. DeRozan’s ability to carry a team when it matters? OK. At least that’s more concrete than hoping against hope. But the idea that the Bulls will overcome a season’s worth of evidence against the NBA’s best seems more like wishful thinking right now.

You want hope? Here goes: I hope I’m wrong.

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