If the Chicago Bulls allow their season to end 11 days from now, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
They've completed the "contenders" portion of their schedule and all that remains is the "Waiting on Secaucus" segment, as every team left is lottery bound, throwing out and trying out different lineups for the rest of the season to give young players time to play and explore—similar to when the Bulls trotted out every available player for a stretch and looked like a mess a couple weeks back.
All the Bulls have to do is take care of business, but if they conducted their business the right way for most parts of the season, they wouldn’t be in this spot, scratching and clawing with a handful of games left.
A scary proposition indeed: 28 quarters to relevance and a new life or 28 quarters to another offseason where leadership and competence and direction is questioned.
Not many pictured this after Taj Gibson was traded at the deadline and certainly when Dwyane Wade’s elbow went "pop-pop" a few games back, the playoffs seemed like a Vegas mirage.
But through the ineptitude of the East and a couple unexpected wins, the Bulls are in the driver's seat. Jimmy Butler's play has risen from "Huh?" to "Wow!" and with it, expectations have to be raised.
They don't want to say it aloud, because acknowledgement means there will have to be some serious accountability on the back end if they come up short, but they know what's in front of them.
"We're not looking at it that way, we're taking it day by day," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We have a great challenge in front of us. This was an emotional game."
Such an emotional game that Hoiberg couldn't remember if the Bulls were traveling to New Orleans or Sacramento for a game on Sunday, having to be corrected by the all-knowing media members—as all have one thing in common: Not having a single clue where things are going from here as the Bulls try to clinch a playoff berth following a one-year sabbatical.
Six games remaining, with five of them against the four worst teams in a bad Eastern Conference and another against a New Orleans Pelicans team that hasn't yet figured out how to use Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to full efficiency.
But because these are the Bulls, no game can be penciled in as an easy win. Against the Knicks, Nets, Magic and 76ers, the Bulls are a combined 6-4—and if not for a Jimmy Butler buzzer-beater against the Nets in late December, that record would be an even .500.
The combined teams have a winning percentage of .331, making it by far the easiest schedule of the teams vying for a playoff spot.
Short of the Nets, the Bulls have lost to the bottom feeders in the East—as those individual instances are chief reasons why the Bulls sit two games below .500 and needing the back end of their schedule to help push them to the postseason—along with timely collapses from the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons to move things along.
Only Rajon Rondo would acknowledge the opportunity in front of his team, that the Bulls control their destiny. Ever the one who zigs when everyone else zags, Rondo has his sights set a bit higher than being tied for seventh seed in the East—which would put them in danger of playing a motivated Cleveland Cavaliers team in the first round.
"We’re not stopping at seven. We've got a nice schedule ahead of us," Rondo said. "(If) we take care of what we need to take care of, we can move up even more. I think other teams have a tougher schedule than us, but it's one game at a time."
Rondo having a hand in the Bulls being a more cohesive unit certainly elevates his level of confidence and the fact the Bulls beat the Bucks and Hawks—the teams occupying fifth and sixth seeds, respectively—gives credence to his beliefs.
"I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway," Butler said.
But expectations can be recalibrated and the Bulls must face the reality of what they've created and walked into: They should be somewhere when the playoffs begin two weekends from now, and it's not Bora Bora.