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Bulls beat Charlotte as All-Stars return, but was it really worth it?

The win over the Hornets, to go along with the Toronto loss to Washington, still kept the Bulls four games back in the chase for a final play-in spot, but it could be doing harm to the dwindling lottery odds they have left.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine, left, drives against Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels during the second half of Thursday night’s game.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine, left, drives against Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels during the second half of Thursday night’s game.
Nell Redmond/AP

Much of the Bulls’ focus at the start of the season was on getting players such as guard Zach LaVine into position to play a “meaningful game.”

They continued to give themselves that chance Thursday, getting a few All-Stars back in the starting lineup and hammering the Hornets 120-99 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Center Nikola Vucevic returned from a sore hip to score 29 points and grab 14 rebounds, while LaVine played his first game since being sidelined following a positive COVID-19 test in mid-April, scoring 13 points in 27 minutes.

With the Wizards beating the Raptors in overtime Thursday, the Bulls stayed within four games of the Wizards for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with six games left.

Meanwhile, there’s a different game to keep an eye on. Next Thursday, the Bulls host the Raptors in what could be two disappointing teams wrapping up the regular season. They’re currently separated by just a half-game, with the Bulls 11th in the East and the Raptors 12th. In terms of the NBA draft lottery on June 22, that puts the Bulls at No. 8 and the Raptors at No. 7.

Big deal? It could be for the Bulls, who no longer have a first-round pick in 2021 unless they land in the top four (that pick would then be protected). If they land outside the top four, the pick goes to the Magic as part of the deal for Vucevic at the trade deadline.

The No. 7 team has a 31.9% chance of landing in the top four. It drops to 26.3% for the No. 8 team. With two talented point guards — Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs — expected to go in the top four, every percentage point counts.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said there have been no discussions with Arturas Karnisovas, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, about sitting players, but could that change by next week? The difference is night and day between missing the playoffs and still having a top-four pick, plus an All-Star in Vucevic, compared to missing the playoffs without a first-round addition from a very talented draft class.

The Bulls would only have a 7.5% chance of landing the No. 1 pick if they could regain the seven spot, but they have defied lottery odds before, hitting on a 1.7% in 2008, which allowed them to draft Derrick Rose.

It looks like the numbers are stacked against them no matter where they finish. But try selling that to Bulls players such as LaVine, who missed 11 games in the NBA health and safety protocol.

“I mean, I’m not that type of guy,” LaVine said when asked about being shut down by his bosses at some point. “Obviously, if that conversation comes up, it won’t be coming from me. If that conversation comes up — it may or may not — but for me, I want to go out there and play.”

The Hornets felt that Thursday from both LaVine and Vucevic, who acted as a 1-2 punch in a 34-point first quarter and a 37-point third quarter.

Vucevic said LaVine’s presence was key.

“It was huge,” he said. “Obviously we’re a much different team with Zach out there — obviously a much better team with him in the lineup.”