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In the Dyin’ for Zion race, Bulls take a big stride in loss to Cavs

We came not to trash bad basketball but to embrace it. To savor it, to cherish it, to become one with it.

Making friends with a Bulls-Cavaliers game on a cold Sunday afternoon meant making friends with Duke’s Zion Williamson, a superior talent who likely will be the first pick in this year’s NBA draft. The Bulls and Cavs are among a handful of wretched teams that would love to lose enough games and gain enough lottery balls to choose him.

You know, without looking like they’re trying to lose games on purpose.

On the other hand, who cares? Lose to your heart’s content. Shout it to the heavens: We’re losers!

Bulls center Robin Lopez shoots over the Cavaliers' Ante Zizic on Sunday at the United Center. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“You know what people are saying and who they’re projecting as far as top picks in next year’s draft, but I don’t really get caught up in that,’’ Cleveland coach Larry Drew said. “I just kind of try to keep my eyes on the prize as far as what I’m trying to do with this team.’’

There’s only one prize as it concerns franchises like the Bulls and the Cavs. It’s the potential reward that comes with being the worst in the NBA. Keep your eye trained on Williamson, a once-in-a-generation combination of size and explosiveness, and you’ll make a lot of people in your fan base happy.

Heading into Sunday’s game at the United Center, the Bulls had beaten Cleveland in the three previous meetings between the two teams this season. It couldn’t be stressed enough that they needed to stop doing that. The Cavaliers had the worst record in the league at 9-41, with the 11-38 Bulls needing to do more to catch up (or down). The Knicks (10-37) and the Suns (11-40) were sandwiched between them.

If you want something badly enough, you have to be willing to do anything to get it. So the Bulls needed to be the worst version of themselves Sunday if they wanted Zion.

With 8 ½ minutes left in the game, they trailed Cleveland by eight points. That was good, very good. But in willful violation of the goal, they stormed back, eventually taking a one-point lead on Wayne Selden Jr.’s three-pointer with a little more than a minute left. Four words: very, very not good.

Then, blessedly if you’re in it for the No. 1 pick in the draft, Kris Dunn failed on a drive with eight seconds left, Zach LaVine missed a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Bulls fell 104-101.

It was beautiful.

At 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, Williamson is a tank worthy of a tanking. He’s playing for Duke only because NBA teams couldn’t draft him out of preschool. He’s averaging 21.7 points and 9.2 rebounds as a freshman. He’s shooting 67 percent from the floor, possibly because he can dunk from half court. Whichever NBA team gets him will live life in a much more fulfilling way than it is now.

So, losing now … it’s kind of crucial.

In the journalism game, phrasing a question just right is important.

“You have two teams kind of struggling …’’ I began to say to Drew before the game.

“Kind of?’’ he said.

Good point. The Bulls and Cavaliers came into the game losers of 30 of their last 32 games, combined. You can’t teach that. You don’t want to teach that, unless the class you’re teaching is Intro to Zion. And it is, no matter what anybody, including Bulls coach Jim Boylen, says.

“We are trying to establish and create a culture,’’ he said. “My job is to coach the team and teach the team with my staff. Those are the things that I focus on.

“… My ownership and management has not talked to me about the draft or what we’re looking at it in the draft or where we are in the draft. We have not talked about that. We’ve talked about getting a young team to improve.’’

• Chandler Hutchison out 2-4 weeks or more as Bulls’ injury woes continue
• A new low? Struggling Bulls lose to lowly Cavs 104-101 at the UC

It’s hard to blame Boylen for wanting to do his job, but Bulls fans probably would prefer that he cease and desist. Before the game, he said that Robin Lopez would start at center if Ante Zizic started for Cleveland. If Zizic didn’t start, Boylen reserved the right to make an adjustment. You couldn’t shake the feeling that this was strategizing worthy of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Zizic did start, putting an end to all the intrigue but not to the bad basketball.

The Bulls have done a lot of good things in this rebuilding/get-Williamson project. They’ve had an incredible string of injuries, the latest one being to rookie Chandler Hutchison (possible fractured toe). They canned Fred Hoiberg and replaced him with Boylen, who has hammered a peach basket to a pole and told his players to line up for wind sprints in practice.

Their big offseason free-agent signing has been a big disappointment. Jabari Parker has questionable work habits but offensive skills that few of his Bulls teammates have. In other cities, that might make him a starter. In this city, it makes him an example of what not to be. That gets back to the culture Boylen wants to establish. If “culture’’ means keeping a few more points off the scoreboard for the Bulls, giving them a better chance of getting Williamson, I’m all for it.

Whatever that was Sunday, it worked. The Bulls lost.

Meaning they won.

“I understand the dilemma there, I understand the fans, I get it,’’ Boylen said. “But I’m trying to coach and teach as best I can.’’

It was the Battle of the Bad. And it was good.