Grow or wilt? Bulls have to decide what to do as light shines on them

It would seem like time is a luxury the Bulls no longer have.

Not with just 18 regular-season games left on the schedule and some of the opposing teams they have waiting for them.

Just don’t try and sell the locker room on that.

After the 118-112 loss to Milwaukee on Friday, the vibes coming out of that game was this was still a process and one that was moving in the right direction.

“You learn how hard it is to compete in this league, to beat a team like the Milwaukee Bucks that won a championship,” veteran DeMar DeRozan said afterward. “They had to go through plenty of growing pains as well until they got to their goal. We’ve got to take the growing pains and understand if you really want it, you have to get back up on your feet when you get knocked down. Competing versus the good teams, we’ve got to take on that challenge. It’s good for us to get hit and see how hard it really is to win in this league.”

That’s a great point … in December.

It’s a much tougher sell with the regular season in the final sprint to the finish line.

Even more concerning is as many great things as this roster has done this season, whether it was how quickly they came together or how bench players stepped into huge roles and succeeded when the coronavirus and injuries hit, the bottom line for true contending teams comes down to how they compete against the league’s best.

Sure, there’s going to be the outliers. Those elite teams that have your number, but every elite team has the Bulls’ number this season.

Of the three teams sitting ahead of them in the Eastern Conference as of Saturday morning, the Bulls were 0-3 against both Miami and Philadelphia, and now 0-2 against the Bucks.

Against the best in the West, the Bulls were a combined 0-4 against Golden State and Memphis, and 0-1 against the conference-leading Suns.

The only wins they have over teams with a winning percentage of .600 or better was a split with Dallas, and beating Utah back on Oct. 30.

That’s a combined record of 2-14 against true contending teams.

So how much “learning” have they actually been doing?

Now short-term?

The performances after Miami last week improved. The Bulls played Atlanta with more urgency, and the third quarter against the Bucks was as solid a 12 minutes as this group has displayed maybe all season long.

They actually played competitive two-way basketball into the fourth quarter, but slowly lost grip of the rope.

“It came down to the last couple of minutes, gave up a couple of offensive rebounds, Jrue [Holiday] got it going,” DeRozan said. “They are defending champs for a reason. We had it, made some mistakes, made it tougher on ourselves.”

Again, an on-going storyline far too often for the Bulls against teams that have a chance to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy when the playoff dust settles at the end.

And it’s not like things get much easier.

They play the 76ers on Monday, still have two more with the Bucks and Cavaliers, one with Miami, and play in Utah and Phoenix in a few weeks.

Sure, Alex Caruso (wrist), Lonzo Ball (knee), and Patrick Williams (wrist) are all on the mend, but there’s no magic switch that can be flipped when they are healthy enough to return.

“The last thing I want is for us to have a false sense of reality of who we are,” coach Billy Donovan said. “We have to face the reality of the areas we have to get better at – there’s a light shined on it now.”

Grow or wilt under that light?

The Bulls have to decide, and quickly.

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