NEW YORK – Even attempting to play the matchup game at this point would be an exercise in futility.
As of Sunday morning, the Bulls players woke up still firmly nestled in the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference, looking up at four teams that will spend the remaining few weeks of the regular season playing musical chairs.
There’s Philadelphia, who have arguably the league’s MVP in Joel Embiid, and also have taken the Bulls to the woodshed in the four meetings this season, beating them by an average of 10 points, and each game getting considerably more one-sided. In the first meeting back in November, the 76ers won by just five. In the last meeting on Mar. 7, it was a beat-down by 15.
How about a first-round showdown with Jimmy Butler and Miami? After all, the Heat culture looks more like a family reunion gone bad lately, losing four straight and feuding like it’s the Jerry Springer Show rebooted. The problem is Miami has also swept the Bulls in the first three games, beating them by an average of 14 points with one game left.
Then Milwaukee, surely they can handle the Bucks? Not really. Three meetings, three losses, and the last one was less than a week ago, and was a 28-point laugher for the defending champions.
That leaves Boston. By the way, the only one of the four that the Bulls have beat this season. One problem. No one wants to play the Celtics these days, as they have wrecked the entire league since the All-Star Break.
That’s why the best approach the Bulls can take over their final eight games was worry about Bulls basketball first, second and third, and come April 10, after the season finale in Minnesota, take a peek at the standings and get the game film out.
“The focus is us,” Bulls guard Alex Caruso said, when asked about looking at possible playoff matchups. “When we get there we’ll get there.
“Where we’re at right now, I don’t think you can worry about matchups. If we worry about us, everything will take care of itself.”
That was the attitude over the last week, as the Bulls had significant wins over Toronto and Cleveland. Two teams that were breathing down their necks in the standings, and two performances that Caruso was wishing he and his teammates could make sustainable.
“We’ve been talking about that for three weeks,” Caruso said of the inconsistencies from game to game. “There’s not much I can say to tell you about what I have to tell guys on what we have to do. It’s about showing up and putting the work in. If we show up and play like we’re supposed to play, we’ll win a lot of games going into the playoffs and be where we need to be. There’s really not many words I can say. Just go out and do it.”
A mentality shared around the locker room.
While big man Nikola Vucevic admitted that it might be difficult for the Bulls to get out of the fifth spot with so little time left, that doesn’t mean that they have to be a quick out.
“I think we have to use these last eight games to work on things we haven’t been doing well, build up our confidence going into the playoffs,” Vucevic said. “That’s going to be very important.
“Some matchups are better than others, but I think we have the talent to play with everybody. It’s just are we willing to do the right things night in and night out? That’s the main thing for us. When we do those things we’re a really good team, and when we don’t we’re not. It’s as simple as that.”