The Bulls arrived in Miami this week looking like many who arrive in Miami, limping, uncertain and in need of medical treatment.
"Kris Dunn, Zach (LaVine), Antonio (Blakeney), (Paul) Zipser,(Cristiano) Felicio, Lauri (Markkanen)," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg read out the list of Bulls unable to play in Thursday night's game against the Miami Heat. "Lauri, he'll suit up, but he had some tenderness in that elbow. He hit it on somebody's head (against Houston in one of the few things the Bulls hit in that dreadful loss). Plus the back to back (with Orlando Friday). We were going to be careful on back to backs, anyway, so hopefully we will get him back tomorrow."
And so the Bulls drag to the conclusion of this once hopeful turned discouraging season with eight games left. Of course, now the countdown, at least outside the priority of the coaches and players, becomes the backpedal to the worst record for enhanced odds for the draft lottery.
The Bulls, 24-50, currently have the eighth poorest record in the NBA. But Brooklyn and Sacramento, for example, are just a half game poorer. Orlando is two games poorer.
Ties among the teams that missed the playoffs are decided with a drawing the Friday after the end of the regular season. But there's little impact as far as the lottery drawing. It is more just for standings. If teams are tied they divide up the lottery ball chances. The drawing this year will be in Chicago May 15 at the Palmer House Hilton.
"We're going to start Cam (Payne), Justin (Holiday), David (Nwaba), Noah (Vonleh) and Robin (Lopez)," Hoiberg added.
The Heat, 40-35 and in seventh in the Eastern Conference, are not believed to be intimidated. Miami has won its last seven at home.
"It's tough," Hoiberg acknowledged. "But we have to go out and play the right way; that's the important part of this stretch. I know we're shorthanded, but that's no excuse for going out and not moving the ball, not playing unselfish basketball and getting back in transition, doing the little things that hopefully keep you in the game, which we did not do the last two games. Going back and watching the last Miami game, January 15th, it was the game before Kris Dunn got hurt (against Golden State with a concussion). We really got excited again because we got up 20 points in that game, we were moving the ball, sharing it, the pace was great, guys were making plays. Zach was playing about 20 minutes at that time and he was unbelievable.
"When you watch those stretches," Hoiberg noted. "It gets you excited, but we have to have that same passion and energy when we are on the floor regardless of who is out there."
Ah, the good old days, two months ago.
It's easy to forget amidst the descent that has become the Bulls season.
But that last game with Miami in the United Center just over two months ago was the last high point of the season.
The Bulls with the win that day over Miami were 14-7 since the previous six weeks, the third best record in the Eastern Conference for that period. Sixteen of the 21 games were against teams with records of .500 or better. The Bulls had won nine of their previous 12 at home to even the home record for the season at 11-11. Nikola Mirotic still was making threes for the Bulls, LaVine returned on limited minutes and was scoring almost a point a minute and Dunn was making game winning shots.
Markkanen late in the game headed off a Miami comeback with a full court drive and score and three-point play through the tough Miami defense. Markkanen posed flexing his left bicep in something of a takeoff of the flexing Portis. Markkanen revealed a big smile, laughing with Denzel Valentine and Holiday going to the free throw line.
It was happy times; high five.
Not so much, anymore, the Bulls working on six straight losses, averaging deficits of more than 20 points the last five.
"I met with the guys and talked to them just about the excitement of that stretch we were playing and how we have to get back to that and finish this out the right way," said Hoiberg. "Win or lose, you have to go out and play with great effort. It was fun to watch."
Hoiberg also seemed to indicate that Dunn and LaVine appear to be done for the season. Though nothing is official yet.
"Kris is doing a lot better," said Hoiberg. "But he still hasn't done any physical activity. He hasn't done anything on the floor since he hurt the toe. He's getting to the point now to where we'd have recondition him to get back to playing shape. I don't know (if there's time for that). We'll just continue to go day to day with him. Zach, he's getting multiple treatments a day now (on his knee tendinitis). He's not doing much on court. So, again, pretty similar situation to Kris. We're still in that first week of the focus being on treatment and then we'll reevaluate once treatments are over.
"It's not too bad (for Markkanen)," said Hoiberg. "He banged his (elbow) nerve pretty good. I asked him if it was the funny bone and he didn't know what I was talking about. He said it wasn't funny."
Not much about these Bulls games is lately.
"There's still plenty of time to teach and get better and grow and that's the approach we have to take with our team," said Hoiberg. "Every time we step on the floor whether it's a shootaround or a practice—we're still having hard practices—that's the time we can evaluate a lot of things. There's still plenty of time to get better with this group and that has to be our focus."