Bulls are down to the ‘Sweet 16’ and still have some serious obstacles

DeMar DeRozan said that every game left “is critical,” and he’s not wrong. Not only do the Bulls have the toughest remaining schedule in the Eastern Conference, but they have some serious messages to send the opposition as the playoffs near.

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The last 16 games of the season are critical for DeMar DeRozan and the Bulls.

The last 16 games of the season are critical for DeMar DeRozan and the Bulls.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Some teams are capable of flipping a switch when it’s a big game and the lights shine the brightest.

Not the Bulls.

The game Wednesday night in Detroit was the latest example.

They became lethargic late in the first quarter and let an 18-win team get comfortable, they went through the motions in the second quarter and allowed the Pistons to take a lead into halftime and, instead of coming out in the third quarter and putting the hammer down, they played more bad basketball and let the emotions fly in timeout huddles.

On a night in which DeMar DeRozan should’ve been laughing on the bench with eight minutes left, he instead was on the court bailing the Bulls out again.

His 16 points in the fourth were needed, but it also didn’t hurt that his teammates actually started picking up the intensity on the defensive end, holding the Pistons to 17 points on 6-for-20 shooting and getting five steals.

“I thought when the fourth quarter hit, it looked like a level of desperation, the way we were playing,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “That was good to see.’’

Yeah, but it would’ve been nice to see it for 48 minutes. Even 24 minutes would’ve been nice. And that remains the problem with this team.

Alex Caruso’s return is going to improve the defense, but he shouldn’t be the reason that three All-Stars suddenly play with high energy from tipoff to final buzzer.

Not with only 16 games left in the regular season and so much at stake.

“At this point of the season, every game matters,’’ DeRozan said. “There’s no time for rest. We’ve got 16 games left; it’s crazy. It feels like we just started. Every one of these games is critical.’’

On Saturday, the Bulls host the Cavaliers in the first of two meetings they have left with Cleveland.

The up-and-coming Cavs are at least a year ahead of schedule, have earned a split with the Bulls in the first two meetings and could be a first-round opponent in the postseason if the Bulls get hot and the Bucks or 76ers have a bad week.

Wins are key in March, but so is sending a message. Showing Cleveland that there’s a difference between contenders and pretenders will be essential. So while it starts with the Cavs, here are the top five games left on the schedule.

1. Celtics on April 6: The way it’s lining up, especially with the Bulls having the toughest schedule left of the Eastern Conference teams, Bulls-Celtics is a realistic first-round showdown. The teams have split this season, but no team in the NBA has been better than Boston since the trade deadline.

2. At Bucks on March 22: Of the three teams — the Heat, 76ers and Bucks — ahead of the Bulls in the standings, Milwaukee is likely the best matchup. The Bulls are 0-2 against the defending champs, but both games have been tight.

3. Heat on April 2: It will be the last shot at the top-seeded Heat, and there’s a good chance the Bulls will be close to full strength. They need to figure out a Miami defense that has given them fits, and this could be the last dress rehearsal for that endeavor.

4. At Suns on March 18: Could this be the return of Caruso just in time for the best in the West?

5. At Timberwolves on April 10: An improved T-wolves team awaits the Bulls in the finale, and as tight as the East has been, playoff positioning could come down to the last game.

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