Lack of a true identity still plagues the Bulls as season slips away

With Zach LaVine out and the roster still trying to recover from the March 25 trade deadline, the Bulls have been trying to embrace a tough-guy mentality. The problem remains that a team like the Knicks doesn’t have to try.

SHARE Lack of a true identity still plagues the Bulls as season slips away
Knicks forward Julius Randle shoots next to Bulls guard Coby White during the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game.

Knicks forward Julius Randle shoots next to Bulls guard Coby White during the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game.

Vincent Carchietta/Pool Photo via AP

The long-awaited news for Bulls fans finally came on Thursday, as the city opened up the restrictions on the United Center that had been in place since the pandemic began last year.

That meant 25% capacity allowed — or roughly 5,250 fans — beginning on May 7, when the Bulls are scheduled to host the Boston Celtics.

The team announced that ticket access will be released in phases, with season ticket holders getting priority on May 3-4, and then general public sales on May 5, for any remaining tickets.

But what exactly could Bulls fans be returning to by that time?

It may feel like a welcome back to the arena event, but it could simply be a goodbye to the 2020-21 Bulls season.

The Wednesday loss in New York stung for several reasons. First, it put the Bulls back to being two games behind a surging Washington team for the final play-in spot, but it was also a reminder of the stark difference between trying to take on an identity versus already have fully embraced an identity.

Oh sure, the Bulls have looked the part at times the last few weeks, doing a few pushups, putting on the smedium tank top, and walking the beach like a fake tough guys. Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, however, aren’t into small shirts and spray tans, and there’s nothing fake about them.

The only use they have for beach sand is to practice close-out drills in it.

That was on full display at Madison Square Garden where the tougher team won, and did so in convincing fashion in crunch time, as the Knicks outscored the Bulls 37-19 in the final 12 minutes.

The hope for Billy Donovan?

Some of his younger players take note of the career path that Knicks standout Julius Randle has been on in Year 7 of his NBA journey, going from Laker cast-off to now an MVP candidate, as well as the poster boy for New York’s tough-minded resurgence.

“You hope that these experiences you learn from and you grow from and you get better from,’’ Donovan said. “A lot of guys are getting exposed to things that I think is going to help them. Now how long it takes us to continue to grow and develop, that’s going to be — we’ll see.

“Listen, I coached Julius Randle when he was a junior in high school at the USA Team, and I saw his career in the NBA. He was trying to find himself. But he’s blossomed into an All-Star player. But he wasn’t this player six years ago. So a lot of times you want these growing pains to happen now as a coach. And sometimes those seeds get planted. Unfortunately it takes a while for the flower to kind of bloom. And it’s going to take these kinds of situations for us to grow. And I hope that we can really grow from them.’’

Maybe they will.

Very doubtful, however, by May 7, when at least a small percentage of the fan base can finally lay eyes on them. And by then it could very well be a wilted weed rather than anything resembling a flower.

This weekend is critical for the Bulls to stop talking must-win games, and actually win them. They host Milwaukee on Friday and then have to travel to Atlanta for the Saturday back-to-back.

The Wizards, meanwhile, travel to Cleveland to take on the lowly Cavs and then Dallas.

Realistically, if the Bulls come out of the weekend down four games with just eight to play, that mountain would be all but unclimbable with very little left to play for even with fans in the stands or an empty arena.

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