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Bulls will be a playoff team in Year 3 of the rebuild, one veteran player says

WASHINGTON — Seven years on this Bulls beat, and it’s no contest when it comes to which players have been my favorites to cover.

In no particular order: Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jimmy Butler and Robin Lopez.

The common thread?

All three were as real as it gets, and if they told you something, it was because they truly believed it.

Minutes after the Bulls’ 113-105 loss to the Knicks on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Lopez sat there, talking about making the playoffs in Year 3 of this rebuild.

He was asked if he really saw this group going from 21 wins in 2018-19 to at least 17 to 19 more by this time next year to realistically be a playoff contender.

“I genuinely do,’’ Lopez said.

And, oh, by the way, they won 27 games in Year 1 of the rebuild.

“Obviously, you never want to blame injuries in this league,’’ Lopez said. “Those happen. But it took us awhile to get our core guys together, and just knowing how the season has felt the last couple of months, the feeling in this locker room, this group could do some special things.’’

Lopez, a free agent this offseason, likely won’t be a part of the group. Still, he has seen enough and heard enough in the second half to just get that “gut feeling’’ that something good is about to happen for the Bulls, with or without him.

“I think we’ve had … there’s just been a different feel around the locker room these last couple of months,’’ Lopez said. “Sometimes you gotta go by that gut feeling.

“When things start to jell a little bit, players start to get that feeling, like, ‘OK, I see our direction, I see what we need to do.’ ’’

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Lopez also is taking a huge leap of faith.

But he pointed to Lauri Markkanen’s production in February, when he flashed All-Star talent in averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds, and the dazzling displays by Zach LaVine, who showed emphatically that he could be a lead guard/playmaker in October and March.

You also can throw in the professionalism and shot-making of Otto Porter Jr., the promise that rookie Wendell Carter Jr. hinted at before his season was cut short after thumb surgery and even what Kris Dunn showed last season, closing out games in December and into January.

They just have to mesh, stay healthy and see what happens.

And don’t forget the Bulls have a high draft pick in June and money to spend on a few veterans, including a point guard to possibly cover up Dunn’s inconsistencies.

But a playoff team by next season?

The Nets and Kings have made 11-game improvements from last season, but that’s not a 17-game jump. The Eastern Conference is still not at the same talent level as the Western Conference, but it has closed that gap a bit.

Then there are the wild-card teams.

The Knicks are all-in for this offseason, hoping to land a top draft pick by June — insert Zion Williamson here — then already clearing cap room for two max stars in July — insert Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving here.

A huge reach in the Big Apple? Yes, but this is the NBA.

“A little bit, yeah,’’ Lopez said when asked if he’s seeing the young Bulls finally showing some hunger, even with all the injuries. “Like I said, I know this group could do some special things.’’

He’s trusting the gut.