Bulls’ locker-room toughness starts with veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday

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This was the season the Bulls were supposed to start moving away from mediocrity.

Vice president of basketball John Paxson braced fans for what was coming in a rebuilding year, saying on several occasions in the offseason and into training camp that there were going to be a lot of ugly nights — possibly two years of darkness before the light.

Instead, the Bulls find themselves inching back toward the middle. On Friday afternoon, they fell to the No.  9 spot in the draft lottery simulator — with just a 1.7 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick in June — thanks to the free-falling New York Knicks.

This sinking ship just won’t take on water fast enough. You can blame — or thank — center Robin Lopez and guard/forward Justin Holiday for that.

Much has been made of the two veterans’ sacrifice this season, with both giving up starting jobs and minutes in order for the younger players to develop. But they’ve also helped to spread a certain mentality through the locker room that has resulted in more wins than expected.

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“Without question, it’s about trying to win every single game no matter what the outside feels you should be or wants you to be,” Lopez said. “That’s the way a lot of these guys are wired. I don’t know how many guys across this league have at some point been doubted X amount of times, but it’s a lot. That mentality has always provided them fuel, motivation.”

While some teams have seemed to simply lie down the last few months, especially those at the bottom, Lopez appears to be triggering the opposite in his teammates.

“Our vets are great,” guard Kris Dunn said. “They don’t know how to be any other way than positive.”

That description fits Holiday perfectly. Like Lopez, he has every reason to be angry, going from a first-time starter to a lineup yo-yo. Instead, he has embraced what this team could be at some point.

Meanwhile, as debate renews about whether NBA super-teams are good or bad for the league, and with playoff reform a possibility, Lopez and Holiday are fine with leaving everything the same as it is. They like the challenge of a historically great team such as the Warriors in the West while LeBron James and the Cavaliers lurk in the East. To them, that’s what it’s about.

“You go into the season wanting to beat them,” Holiday said. “We’re all competitors. That’s what we want. I love playing against LeBron and them, or the Warriors, the best players. I’m sure every player you ask, that’s how they would answer that.”

Or at least every player in the Bulls locker room.

“I know there’s a lot of discussion about the haves and have-nots, super-teams, tanking, but I’m not sure why there’s a reaction of change right now,” Lopez said. “You go to the early 2000s with the Lakers, the 1990s with [Michael] Jordan’s Bulls . . . I’m not sure why people want change now. The league has been set up like that for years. It’s interesting. Lots of times you’re just in that echo chamber, man. You hear that same thing over and over again, and you start to believe it.”

NOTE: Kris Dunn (toe) and Lauri Markkanen (back) will miss Saturday’s game against the Cavs at the United Center, while Zach LaVine (knee) and Noah Vonleh (toe) are questionable.

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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