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Big man Lauri Markkanen makes his return, but Bulls still lose fourth straight

It’s not a pretty time on the NBA calendar. While a team such as the Bucks can afford to rest All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo (injured right ankle) with a playoff spot all but locked up, teams like the Bulls are auditioning players such as Cameron Payne and Noah Vonleh to determine if they’ll have spots on next season’s roster.

Teams in contention are playing mostly meaningful games. Those who aren’t in contention are jockeying for lottery balls.

Sleep easy, Bulls fans — just 10 games left after a 118-105 loss to the Bucks on Friday night at the United Center.

But coach Fred Hoiberg won’t join in the excitement of that countdown, hoping to squeeze some meaning out of the 40 quarters left.

“Each time these guys step on the floor, it’s important to show what they can do for their careers and to see who the organization feels is a good long-term fit,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about this the other night after the [loss to the Nuggets] — these guys have to go out there and play with great effort and take advantage of the opportunities that are there for them right now. And each and every minute they’re on the floor is valuable experience for these guys to come out and show what they can do, prove that they belong.”

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Again, they’re having to do that shorthanded. While forward Lauri Markkanen was back in the starting lineup against the Bucks — his first game since March 11 because of back spasms — the unit was still without regulars Kris Dunn (toe) and Zach LaVine (tendinitis, left knee). There’s still no timetable for either to return, especially LaVine, who could simply be shut down for the rest of the season.

Denzel Valentine led the Bulls with 20 points and five rebounds, with Payne chipping in 15 points and Bobby Portis adding 16 from the bench. Shabazz Muhammad led the Bucks with a game-high 21.

As for Markkanen, he was eased back into action, playing 22 minutes and scoring nine points on 3-for-7 shooting. He showed no sign of setbacks with his back, which should increase his opportunities. He won’t play Saturday in Detroit in the second game of a back-to-back but hopes that’s the last speed bump.

“I felt OK,” he said. “Of course, you think about it a little bit, but it was good to get out there and get some [work] in. I want to play every game, but you’ve got to be smart, too.”

It was the fourth straight loss for the Bulls (24-48) but didn’t change their lottery position. The Knicks and Nets also stumbled Friday, which meant the Bulls stayed in the No. 8 spot from the bottom. As it stands right now, there are nine teams in the NBA with a winning percentage of .361 or lower.

That’s an ugly look for the league, but Hoiberg hopes it will be changing soon, starting with his own team.

“I know that all the teams that are in positions like ours are going to do everything they can to get out of it to where we’re competing for, hopefully, playoff spots in the near future,” he said. “We had some really good stretches of basketball that we can build on, and it’s going to be an important offseason to try and build the right habits, get guys to go out there and play with great chemistry, very similar to what was going on when we had that streak in December and January. It’s going to be a lot of work this offseason, but I think that everybody is committed to it and excited about it.”

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com