Cameron Payne takes a pass against the Nuggets on Feb. 28 in Chicago. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Cameron Payne sent to D-League as Bulls prepare for stretch run

SHARE Cameron Payne sent to D-League as Bulls prepare for stretch run
SHARE Cameron Payne sent to D-League as Bulls prepare for stretch run

It’s looking as though the Bulls, who have 12 games left in the regular season, might have to soldier on without guard Cameron Payne.

The Bulls will start an important week Tuesday in Toronto without Payne, who’s being assigned to their Windy City team in the D-League for at least a few days.

Payne, who was acquired in the trade Feb. 23 with the Thunder that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City, has missed the last three games with soreness in his surgically repaired right foot.

‘‘We’re going to send Cam down to the D-League,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said after practice Monday. ‘‘He’s going to practice [Monday], and then he’ll play in [the] game [Tuesday]. And then the plan is to see how things go with the game, practice with Windy City again on Wednesday and then play in the game on Thursday, as well.’’

But how much of this is for rehab and how much is a reassignment in which Payne, who hasn’t dazzled with the Bulls, needs to prove his NBA credentials? The evidence leans heavily toward the latter.

Payne has been underwhelming in his nine games with the Bulls, averaging six points and 1.7 assists in 15 minutes. Overall, it hardly has been the stuff of a point guard of the future.

The thing is, the Bulls can’t wait. One game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Hoiberg and his players are focused on making the most of their final dozen games.

The Bulls’ four games in the next six days will tell a lot. The stretch begins with a visit to the Raptors, a team the Bulls have beaten a mind-boggling 11 consecutive times.

After that, two of the Bulls’ next three games are against the Pistons (Wednesday) and Bucks (Sunday), who are just ahead of them in the jockeying for the final playoff berths. In other words, by the end of the weekend, the Bulls’ postseason prospects probably will have taken a serious turn for the better or worse.

Restless fans might not be interested in a team that’s not likely to stick around long in the playoffs, even if it gets there. But that goal matters to the players.

‘‘It would mean a lot [to make the playoffs],’’ guard Michael Carter-Williams said. ‘‘We’re definitely not in panic mode. We’re more hungry than ever. We go into each game trying to win. Now it’s crunch time, so we’re really biting at the bullet. We’re just going out and giving it our all each night.’’

Hoiberg seems more burdened than excited about the effort to try to salvage something. Asked whether he was having any fun at all, he said, ‘‘No,’’ then added: ‘‘You just try to go out there and have good practices. This is the first time in almost three weeks where we’ve had two [open] days — a day [off] to give the guys an opportunity to catch their breath, then bounce back with a good practice. [We had] a spirited practice. You hope that carries over to the game, not only [Tuesday] but the remainder of our stretch.’’

Is it stressful?

‘‘No, you can’t look at it that way,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘It’s all about the preparation. It’s about buying in. It’s about doing the little things.

‘‘[In] our second half [Friday] against Washington, we did a much better job. In the Utah game [Saturday], [from] the middle of the first quarter . . . all the way through the fourth, we were pretty darn good. You take those things that you do well, and you try to build on it.’’

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