Chicago Bulls lose ground to Atlanta Hawks in play-in standings — and only 8 games remain: ‘Our margin for error is small’

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

This has been a season of inconsistency for the Chicago Bulls. But for most of the six weeks since the All-Star break in February, they have seemed locked in to one guarantee: a ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference for a spot in the NBA play-in tournament.

That certainty shifted this week. The stability of the No. 9 seed has all but evaporated after the Bulls lost to some inferior teams, causing them to lose ground to their most urgent competitor in the East: the Atlanta Hawks.

The Bulls (35-39) are one game ahead of the 10th-seeded Hawks (34-40), who lost to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, snapping their four-game winning streak. The Hawks visit the United Center on Monday.

About a week ago, the Bulls began to keep a more watchful — and wary — eye on the standings. But guard Coby White said he and his teammates also are careful to avoid fixating on the Hawks.

“We not really trying to put too much into it,” White said. “We just want to take it one game at a time, get one win at a time and try not to really look to the future.”

The Bulls have been at least one man down for the majority of the season. But heading into the final play-in push, they were supposed to have at least a marginal leg up on the Hawks, who on Feb. 23 lost star point guard Trae Young to a torn finger ligament.

It wasn’t much — a single notch higher in the standings than the Bulls finished last season despite the fact they’re on track for fewer wins than last year’s 40-42 record. But ninth place would be good for home-court advantage to open the play-in tournament, a key improvement from 2023 when the Bulls needed to travel to Toronto and Miami and fell just short of a playoff spot.

With Young sidelined for the rest of the regular season, the Bulls appeared to have ninth place all but locked down. But the Hawks, who were 3½ games behind the Bulls as recently as March 22, have won without Young and pulled within a half-game Friday after the Bulls’ road loss to the Nets.

The Bulls still have two key advantages: the head-to-head tiebreaker and strength of schedule. The Hawks face a blistering final run to close the regular season, with matchups against top contenders including the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers.

The Bulls will face a difficult test against the Timberwolves on Sunday — and have an almost humorous run of three matchups against the New York Knicks in the final six games of the season. This schedule is balanced with winnable games against the Detroit Pistons and Wizards. But after dropping supposedly simple games this week to the Wizards and Nets, nothing feels like an automatic win for the Bulls.

“Our margin for error is small,” coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ve got to even be more detailed and consistent.”

Winning out in this final eight-game stretch is about more than just holding the Hawks at bay. Since the front office chose to stand pat once again at the trade deadline, it has been difficult to quantify how the Bulls will define “success” this season.

After opting for a third year of stagnancy — or perhaps just indecision — executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas said the Bulls would be successful in his eyes if they remained “competitive” in the East. That word has hounded the front office ever since.

After all, is it competitive to finish ninth out of 15 teams in the conference? Or to end the season with a losing record? Or to lose to bottom-of-the-barrel teams such as the Pistons and Wizards?

These are the questions Karnišovas and the front office will have to face at the end of the season. Slipping from ninth to 10th would only sharpen the clarity of the interrogation.

For Donovan, the concept of “competing” isn’t enough to define success in the final stretch. In fact, that’s just the baseline that he believes the Bulls should hold themselves to throughout the season.

“I don’t think that any of us — and I don’t want to speak for (general manager) Marc (Eversley) and Arturas — but to me it’s all of our jobs to compete,” Donovan said. “You want to get into a situation where you’re finding ways to continue to not only get better but get results.”

It’s clear the Bulls are exhausted. Injuries have sidelined Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams for the season. Torrey Craig and Alex Caruso are constantly playing through nagging pain. Ayo Dosunmu and Nikola Vučević are both starting despite battling illness.

But this roster doesn’t have the luxury of rest right now as they risk yet another backslide.

“We got eight left,” veteran forward DeMar DeRozan said. “Can’t depend on nobody else. We’re going to have to continue to fight for our lives. That’s going to be even more exhausting. We have to show how much we want it.”