Bulls starting to feel some pressure in playoff race

For a few months now, the Bulls have been navigating their speed bump of a season, never going more than three games above or below .500.

During this time, they've stayed in playoff position, mostly because no teams were good enough to catch them.

That's changing. With Monday's loss to Detroit, the Bulls and Pistons are now tied for the seventh and eighth spots in the East. Miami and Milwaukee are both 1½ games behind and both are playing well.

The Heat was 11-30 on Jan. 13, then won 13 in a row and there's no evidence the streak was a fluke. Miami has now gone 19-4 since the win streak began and just beat Cleveland twice in three days. The Bulls already clinched the season series against Miami 2-1.

Milwaukee is 3-0 against the Bulls and it was a head-scratcher why the Bucks couldn't pass the Bulls in the standings. It might happen soon. Milwaukee has finally built some momentum, winning seven of 10 games. The Bucks and Bulls play once more on Mar. 26 at the Bradley Center.

The Bulls and Pistons meet once more, on Mar. 22 at the United Center and the Bulls need to win that one to finish the season series in a 2-2 tie.

In their final visit to the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Bulls appeared to be a vulnerable team. With Dwyane Wade (thigh) and Rajon Rondo (ankle) both sidelined with injuries, the Bulls had to rely heavily on their young players and continued a recent trend of fading late in games.

"We have to figure it out now," Jimmy Butler told reporters after the loss. "We can't be looking further and further down the road. We'll be all right; just win some games. Wish I could say we can win the rest we have. All we can focus on now is the practice we have tomorrow."

The Bulls are listing Rondo as questionable for Wednesday's game in Orlando and Wade doubtful. Without those two, the Bulls started the fourth quarter without a veteran on the floor. The score was tied after three quarters, but the Pistons ended up winning the fourth 30-16.

It's fair to ask if the Bulls have a roster that's capable of reaching the playoffs. After they traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City on Feb. 23, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said one of the goals was to get a good look at some of the young players the rest of the way, mainly Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and newcomer Cameron Payne.

Those guys don't always deliver and management seems to have accepted that missing the playoffs might be a byproduct of the youth movement. The Bulls will have a chance to retool the roster this summer.

The Bulls have a tough stretch in the next few weeks, with road games at Boston, Charlotte, Washington and Toronto, along with home games against some of the better teams in the West - Houston, Memphis and Utah.

Then again, does it really matter what's ahead on the schedule? The Bulls have a better record against winning teams than against teams below .500. They've won 11 straight against Toronto and are 3-0 this season against Cleveland, which visits the the United Center on Mar. 30.

If the Bulls can figure out how to play well against all teams, the end of their schedule could be favorable. The final six opponents in April currently have losing records, but the Bulls will play four of those games on the road while college hockey's Frozen Four moves into the United Center.

Get the latest Bulls news via Twitter by following @McGrawDHBulls.

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Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg yells instructions to players during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Bulls game day

Bulls vs. Orlando Magic at the Amway Center, 6 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: WLS 890-AM

Outlook: The Bulls are 2-0 against the Magic this season and won in Orlando 100-92 on Jan. 24. Orlando (23-41) is similar to the Bulls in that it plays better against good opponents. Orlando has gone 5-14 since Jan. 29, but those wins came against Atlanta, Toronto twice and streaking Miami twice. SG Evan Fournier is the Magic's top scorer at 16.8 ppg. The second-leading scorer, C Nikola Vucevic, missed the past two games with a sore Achilles and is questionable for this one. SF Terrence Ross, acquired from Toronto for Serge Ibaka, has averaged 13 points in six games. Jimmy Butler has scored 20 a game against Orlando this season.

Next: Houston Rockets at United Center, 7 p.m. Friday

- Mike McGraw

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