Getting tough to feel optimistic about Bulls' playoff chances

The Bulls are in a quandary, trying to develop their young players while still hoping to reach the playoffs.

The playoff goal isn't going so well, especially after losing Friday to Houston, the Bulls' fourth-straight defeat. The loss dropped them to ninth place in the East and out of playoff position for the first time in several weeks.

Asked Saturday if he's seen any encouraging signs from the young guys, coach Fred Hoiberg paused and gave the question some thought.

"They're all getting their opportunities to get out there and play," Hoiberg said. "The biggest thing you look for with the young players is you try to build good habits and you try to build consistency."

Watching the Bulls is a constant reminder that none of their young guys was a top-10 draft pick and there are no surefire future stars in the group. A promising performance one night often leads to a disappearing act the next.

Before boarding a plane for Boston, center Robin Lopez - one of the Bulls' few legitimate veterans - did drop some encouraging thoughts about his younger teammates.

"It's an interesting dynamic definitely," Lopez said after a short practice at the Advocate Center. "But I think it's something we can accomplish. We've got a lot of talent. I honestly think we're just beginning to scratch that. I think a lot of the young guys have great potential."

Surely Lopez has to be concerned about the upcoming schedule. This will be one of the Bulls' toughest weeks of the season, starting with a Sunday afternoon date against the Celtics on ABC, followed by a tilt in Charlotte on Monday. The Bulls return home to face Memphis on Wednesday, visit Washington Friday, then finish another back-to-back with Utah at home on Saturday.

"We're actually excited. I think we have a great schedule coming up," Lopez said. "We just have to take advantage of it. Everybody sees the potential of this team. We know if we get in the playoffs, anything can happen."

The Bulls' recent trend has been to start fast, then fade late in games. Road losses in Detroit and Orlando earlier this week were tied heading into the fourth quarter. Against the Rockets, the Bulls led by 13 in the first quarter, then trailed by 31 in the third.

That's another common problem with young teams. When adversity strikes or the opponent makes a run, it's easy to get discouraged and abandon the game plan. The Bulls have basically done that four times in a row during the losing streak.

"You look at (Friday) night, we had (six) guys out there with one or two years of experience," Hoiberg said. "That's more than the teams that have been really rebuilding through the draft these past couple years. The reality of our team right now is to get those guys some minutes and again, try to put ourselves in a position to win games.

"You look at our schedule, obviously this week is a very difficult week. If we can make it through this stretch, anything can happen. We're still right there."

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Bulls game day

Bulls vs. Boston Celtics at TD Garden, 2:30 p.m. Sunday


Radio: WLS 890-AM

Outlook: The Bulls have won two out of three against Boston this season, but the home team has won every time. This is the Celtics' return home after a five-game West Coast trip, which ended with Friday's 20-point loss at Denver. Boston (41-25) is just 4-6 in its last 10 games and fell behind Washington into third place in the East with Friday's loss. PG Isaiah Thomas is second in the league in scoring at 29.3 ppg. SG Avery Bradley (16.9 ppg) is back in the lineup after missing most of January and February with a sore Achilles. C Al Horford is averaging 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. Jimmy Butler had been the Bulls' top scorer in all three games against Boston, averaging 25.3 points.

Next: Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center on Monday, 6 p.m.

- Mike McGraw

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