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Brutal stretch of schedule will provide another round of tests for Bulls

Coach Billy Donovan has tried to figure out how to maneuver his team through the next month of games, but, with little relief in sight, it won’t be easy. How does the slipping defense get fixed? Stay tuned.

The upcoming month will be a tough one for the Bulls.
The upcoming month will be a tough one for the Bulls.
Noah K. Murray/AP

The calendar gets ugly now.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan has searched it for breaks, looking up and down for small cracks to get some much-needed work in, but he knows the reality.

With 22 games in the next 36 days, including six back-to-backs during that span, an already-taxing season is about to get even rougher.

‘‘This is unique just because they put some games in that we had postponed, and some of them are here before the All-Star Game, which makes things condensed,’’ Donovan said when discussing the Bulls’ schedule between now and All-Star Weekend. ‘‘You’ve got to try and balance, ‘How do we continue to get better and improve where maybe we can’t get on the floor and do things physically?’ There’s just not the days in between games. And how do we try and keep guys fresh?’’

The first issue is getting on the floor for some practice time. The next week is ugly for the Bulls, who will play five games in the next seven days.

Donovan could try to sneak a practice or two in next week, but that would be rough. The game Monday at the Grizzlies is an afternoon tipoff, so the next day works because the Bulls are at home against the Cavaliers on Jan. 19.

But Donovan admitted he’ll have to check with the medical staff about the usage of his players, especially because of the number of games this week.

Monday was a day off for the Bulls, who will host the Pistons on Tuesday. Then it’s a home game Wednesday against the Nets and a day off Thursday before the Warriors come to town Friday. Then it’s off to Boston for a game Saturday against the Celtics, another day off, then the game at the Grizzlies.

That’s three games against very good teams, with a one against an underachieving team thrown into the mix.

Donovan said the stress those games will put on guard Zach LaVine, forward DeMar DeRozan and center Nikola Vucevic will be monitored, but he said there were no plans to rest guys yet. He said it will be up to the players to communicate with the staff about how they’re feeling.

So how will Donovan find the time to fix a defense he has seen slipping in the last month without practice time? It won’t be easy, but it definitely needs fixing.

During the Bulls’ nine-game winning streak, Donovan watched the team’s defensive rating slip out of the top 10 to 13th (108.5 points per game) to start this week. The Bulls’ offense ranks fifth (112 points per game), but Donovan knows serious contenders tend to rank among the top 10 on both ends of the floor.

‘‘There’s a bigger picture coming,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘As you start to build out who you are, I still think there’s room for growth from our team.’’

What works in Donovan’s favor are his players. The Bulls have some high-character veterans who don’t necessarily need practice to fix things. This group has shown that getting together for a breakfast meeting can get results.

‘‘If we want to be the team we want to be and we know we can be, it has to be for 48 minutes,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘We’ve shown we can do it.’’