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Bulls look soft in Big Apple in Wendell Carter’s return from injury

Rather than add toughness to a lineup that drastically needed it, Carter struggled against the Knicks.

NEW YORK — Center Wendell Carter Jr.’s long-awaited return from a right ankle injury was supposed to bring toughness, physicality and an embrace of contact that a somewhat soft team has sorely lacked.

Well, now what?

Carter was on a minutes restriction, having sat out since Jan. 6, but even he was beyond disappointed by the final numbers coming out of Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Carter and his teammates were outrebounded 50-33 and allowed a season-high 76 points in the paint to an 18-win Knicks team. And, most important, the home team ended a six-game losing streak by beating the Bulls 125-115.

There was plenty of embarrassment and disappointment to go around.

“It definitely bothers me as a player,’’ Carter said. “I mean 70-some points in the paint; they rebounded, like, 53 percent of their misses. I feel like that is just a recipe for disaster. I mean, if we can’t be tougher as a team, we’re going to lose that battle every time. I’m not going to blame it on me not being 100 percent. I wasn’t physical enough, and that’s just something I have to approach every game. I have to make sure my presence is felt on the physical side.’’

Carter, whom coach Jim Boylen wanted to limit to around 20 minutes, actually played 18:11, scoring six points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking a shot, but he was also a minus-15 and admittedly never felt right.

“I got winded pretty quickly,’’ Carter said. “I tried to train and get prepared, but there’s nothing like playing in a game. [The ankle] felt OK. Certain movements make you feel a little funny, but that comes with a sprained ankle. They say you just gotta work through it.’’

Not that Carter, who was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft, was alone in the blame game.

On a night when the Bulls (20-40) also got Denzel Valentine (hamstring) back and avoided losing rookie Coby White to back problems that had been bothering him the last few days, they just collectively came up soft in myriad ways.

“I’m pretty sure there are a lot of guys in here that are real disappointed,’’ backup center Daniel Gafford said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game off the jump. We had physical moments and then we didn’t have physical moments, and the physical moments we didn’t have took over for us.

“It was disappointing because we had this mindset of going out there and being the tougher team, and it just didn’t fall into play with us.’’

Still, the Bulls were hanging around most of the fourth quarter, even cutting the lead to two with 9:28 left, but New York kept answering until it finally pulled away in the last three minutes thanks to several turnovers that led to fast-break points.

“It was a similar theme to the last time we were here,’’ Boylen said, alluding to an earlier loss at the Garden. “Their physicality, their size, it was hard on us. . . . It’s disappointing. We have to do better.’’

Boylen’s hope is that with 22 games left, Carter will have plenty of time to get back into shape and do just that — be better.

“I thought he had some moments where he looked like Wendell, and I thought he had some moments where he looked like he was still in preseason,’’ Boylen said. “That’s part of it. That’s why he’s on a minutes restriction. We’ll take it for the first night, and we’ll move forward.’’