Bulls’ final stretch is set to start, and there’s a lot to watch

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg knows exactly what he wants from his players in the last 25 games of the regular season.

He also knows that it contradicts what many of the team’s fans want.

“It is what it is,’’ Hoiberg said about the good portion of Bulls fans who want the team to lose. “It’s the era we live in. I understand some of it. But it’s important for these guys to go out and learn how to win.

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“That’s a big part of everything you’ve got going with a young team. You go through stretches where you really get deflated when things aren’t going well. So you have to have something to keep morale up and keep the guys going.

“These guys are competitors. They’re going to go out and try to win every game.’’

That’s why the tank has been in jeopardy since the 10-6 December after the 3-20 start. The team is too talented to be in the same zip code as the Hawks and Suns.

But changes are coming.

Yes, the focus will remain on the Bulls’ version of the “Big Three’’ — Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen — and Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday should expect to see fewer minutes. But there are still some unknowns that the team wants resolved by mid-April.

Five keys for rest of season

1. Getting the gang together: Because of a face plant, knee rehab and birth, Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen have played only four games together. That will change starting Thursday against the 76ers.

Expect the three to get very familiar with each other in the next seven weeks, not only to continue discovering each other’s games, but to let the rest of the league know that they can be a difficult trio to deal with.

Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen are the key foundation pieces, and building around them will be easier for the front office if it can learn what it has regarding the trio’s strengths and weaknesses.

2. Effort runs high: This season has never been about victories for Hoiberg, as far as the front office is concerned.

This has been about Hoiberg showing he can develop young talent and making sure his players play with a high effort from game to game. Check both of those boxes.

What Hoiberg has to guard against is the players letting up.

3. Big Cris: Cristiano Felicio inked a four-year, $32 million extension last summer, despite showing signs of diminishing skills. It’s important to get the backup big man moving in a positive direction, especially if the Bulls are looking to trade Lopez this offseason and need Felicio for depth.

4. The Cam Payne trail: Cameron Payne is ready to play some serious minutes off the bench when he returns from an injured right foot.

It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for the back-up guard, whom general manager Gar Forman once considered the Bulls’ “point guard of the future.’’

5. Closing time: Dunn said he doesn’t care whether he’s the closer. That notion will be tested because before he was sidelined with a concussion, Dunn emerged in that role.

Now LaVine is back, and he has been the last-minute player in Dunn’s absence.

Hoiberg said every team wants multiple closers, and while that’s true, there also is some ego involved. Dunn and LaVine growing together in that role will be interesting.

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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