Grow or wilt? Bulls have to decide what to do as light shines on them

The ongoing storyline all season has been the team’s poor play against the NBA’s elite. This last week did nothing to change that.

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It would seem as though time is a luxury the Bulls no longer have — not with only 18 regular-season games left on the schedule and some of the opposing teams they have waiting for them.

Just don’t try to sell the locker room on that. After a 118-112 loss Friday to the Bucks, the Bulls still were talking about how the season is a process.

‘‘You learn how hard it is to compete in this league, to beat a team like the Milwaukee Bucks that won a championship,’’ veteran forward DeMar DeRozan said. ‘‘They had to go through plenty of growing pains, as well, until they got to their goal.

‘‘We’ve got to take the growing pains and understand [that], if you really want it, you have to get back up on your feet when you get knocked down. Competing versus the good teams, we’ve got to take on that challenge. It’s good for us to get hit and see how hard it really is to win in this league.’’

That would be a great point in December, but it’s a much tougher sell with the regular season in the final sprint to the finish line.

More worrisome is that for as many great things as the Bulls have done this season, whether it was how quickly they came together or how bench players stepped into huge roles when the coronavirus and injuries hit, the bottom line for true contenders is how they compete against the NBA’s best.

And virtually every elite team has had the Bulls’ number this season.

Against the three teams sitting ahead of them in the Eastern Conference entering play Saturday, the Bulls are 0-3 against the Heat and 76ers and 0-2 against the Bucks.

Against the best in the West, the Bulls are 0-2 against the Warriors and Grizzlies and 0-1 against the conference-leading Suns.

The only victories they have against teams with a winning percentage of .600 or better have come against the Mavericks — against whom they have split two games — and the Jazz.

That’s a combined 2-14 record against true contending teams. So how much ‘‘learning’’ have the Bulls actually been doing?

On the bright side, after a less-than-competitive loss Monday to the Heat, the Bulls played with more urgency Thursday against the Hawks, and the third quarter against the Bucks was perhaps as solid a 12 minutes as they have played all season.

They actually played competitive two-way basketball into the fourth quarter before slowly losing their grip.

‘‘It came down to the last couple of minutes,’’ DeRozan said. ‘‘Gave up a couple of offensive rebounds, and [Bucks guard] Jrue [Holiday] got it going. They are defending champs for a reason. We made some mistakes, made it tougher on ourselves.’’

It has been an ongoing storyline for the Bulls against teams that have a chance to win the title. And it’s not as though things are going to get much easier. The Bulls play the 76ers on Monday and still have two games against the Bucks and Cavaliers and one each against the Heat, Jazz and Suns.

Sure, guards Alex Caruso (wrist surgery) and Lonzo Ball (knee surgery) and forward Patrick Williams (wrist surgery) are on the mend, but there’s no guarantee all the Bulls’ problems will turn around when those players are healthy enough to return.

‘‘The last thing I want is for us to have a false sense of reality of who we are,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. ‘‘We have to face the reality of the areas we have to get better at. There’s a light shined on it now.’’

Will the Bulls grow or wilt under that light? They have to decide — and quickly.

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