Bulls’ momentum good, but big man Nikola Vucevic still has concerns

Vucevic knows he and his teammates have a strong belief in the way they’ve been playing lately, but he also knows they have to finish strong.

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Nikola Vucevic

Bulls big man Nikola Vucevic knows that there’s a lot to feel good about with four regular-season games left, but there’s also a lot of work to still be done.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic heard the friendly jab from across the locker room.

Vucevic was putting on his socks while teammate Zach LaVine was breaking down the game with the media. LaVine said Vucevic was defending the rim, ‘‘even though he doesn’t jump real high.’’

‘‘Thanks, Zach!’’ Vucevic responded.

It was yet another feel-good moment to come out of the Bulls’ improbable comeback victory Sunday against the Grizzlies, a game they trailed by 23 points in the first half.

But while Vucevic didn’t want to be the wet blanket, he told it like it was.

‘‘We can’t get too happy because, honestly, [No. 10 in the Eastern Conference standings] is not where we want to be,’’ Vucevic said.

Still, it’s where the Bulls are.

With four regular-season games left, the Bulls have a bit of a say over their destiny in their quest to earn the best position possible for the play-in tournament. That starts with a must-win game Tuesday against the Hawks at the United Center.

Beating the Hawks would put both teams at 39-40, but it would give the Bulls the season series and the tiebreaker. That would mean that if nothing changed from that point, the Bulls would host a first-round play-in game against the Hawks, with the winner playing the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game.

Then there are the Raptors, who are a game in front of the Bulls and tied with the Hawks. The Raptors have the tiebreaker over the Bulls, so finishing with the same record as they do won’t change anything. That means the Bulls need a stumble from the Raptors, who have a schedule that features a game Tuesday at the Hornets, then consecutive road games against the Celtics before a home game against the Bucks to close the regular season.

The issue is that the second game against the Celtics and the finale against the Bucks might be rest games for both teams. That means the Bulls have no room for error.

‘‘Obviously, we still have four games that we have to approach very seriously and try to improve our situation in the standings,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘We know that we’re not perfect — far from it — but we are putting the work in. That and having a belief this time of the year is all you can do.’’

Belief is the major difference between this version of the Bulls and the one that finished 10 games above .500 and earned the No. 6 seed in the East last season.

In March, the Bulls — basically the same core from 2021-22 — beat the Nuggets in Denver, the Heat at home, the 76ers in Philadelphia and the Lakers in Los Angeles. Then they opened April by doing what they did in the second half Sunday against the Grizzlies, turning in an almost-perfect 24 minutes on both ends of the court.

That carries weight, Vucevic said, but it also comes with a warning.

‘‘Even though [the Grizzlies] had a big lead, we still felt like we were right there,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘Just had to fix a couple of things. I thought we did a good job just sticking with it. It’s an important mindset to have: Keep that intensity and just keep believing.

‘‘For sure, it helps our confidence to be playing at this level right now. The play-in game is tricky because it’s one game at a time, but it definitely helps to know that you’re playing better basketball going into it than you were earlier in the year. It definitely helps knowing that we went into last year’s playoffs playing worse down the stretch. You don’t want that. But what we can’t do is let up.’’

It’s a lesson this team finally might be understanding.

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