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NEW YORK — 23 seconds into Wendell Carter Jr.’s first game since Jan. 6, the Bulls’ starting center blocked Elfrid Payton’s driving layup and then missed a turnaround hook shot at the other end.

“I got winded first trip down the court,” Carter said after returning from his severely sprained right ankle.

In some ways, you could say the first possession of the Bulls’ eventual 125-115 loss to the Knicks served as a metaphor for this lost season. It began with such promise and ended with disappointment — with a hint of pain for good measure.

Granted, getting winded isn’t the same as an injury. But some metaphorical allowances must be made for a season that has so spectacularly drifted from the script.

After losing to a Knicks team that won the rebounding battle by 17, posted an opponent season-high 76 points in the paint and snapped a six-game skid, the Bulls are a season-worst 20 games under .500 entering March.

Think about that.

A season that began with playoff talk and such promise has devolved into a revolving door of injury updates and poor play. And losing. So much losing.

Is now the time to mention that 17 of the Bulls’ final 22 games are against teams currently in playoff position?

This is a critical stretch for the Bulls, who also returned Denzel Valentine back from his strained hamstring for his first action since Super Bowl Sunday. This is the time teams can check out, can end huddles with chants like “1-2-3, Cancun!”

 

And Zach LaVine knows it.

“I feel good for everyone coming back,” LaVine said. “I just hope we can all stay locked in and finish these games out.

“You have other stuff creep into your mind. You’re looking at the finish line instead of looking at the next day. You have to fight that. Everybody’s different. I focus on what I can, stick to my routine. Obviously, I enjoy playing basketball. I had basketball taken away from me with my ACL injury for a while and it gave me a new perspective on it. Since that, I try to play in any game that I can. I enjoy playing.”

LaVine did his part, scoring 26 points with seven assists and playing through a sore quad that he tweaked in pregame warmups. Yes, even those aren’t safe anymore, as Coby White proved by scoring 22 points after having his status uncertain until just before tipoff after he tweaked his back before Thursday’s practice.

LaVine rode a stationary bicycle in a Madison Square Garden tunnel to keep his quad loose. And if we’re going to extend — beat into the ground? — this metaphor, that seemed fitting too.

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The Bulls are spinning their wheels this season, not showing progress in the win-loss record in the third season of the rebuild.

“I’d be disappointed for sure. I’d definitely be shocked,” Carter said, when asked what he would’ve thought if someone told him in training camp that the Bulls would be 20 games under .500 in March. “Now that I’m looking back, it’s like, damn, we just had so many injuries. So many people have been out. I feel like we haven’t had a full healthy team since I been in Chicago. It just kind of sucks as a team.

“We got time though. If we can’t make the run we need to make to get in the playoffs this year, I feel like we have to set the tone for next year.”

There you go. Everybody is searching for something to play for down the stretch. LaVine wants to play all 82 games.

“I just try to focus on what I can do. If I can look myself in the mirror and say I did everything I could do at the end of the game, I’m happy with that,” LaVine said. “Stick to my routine. Try to be a pro. Help lead and get better. I think we can all do better being consistent with ourselves.

“I can’t speak for everybody else. I know when I step on the floor, I think I can win. I haven’t been a winner in the NBA but I don’t feel like I’m a losing player.”

Valentine is playing for his NBA future, whether it’s with the Bulls or, if they let the restricted free agent walk, elsewhere.

 

“It’s huge to prove to myself and to everybody else that I belong for good,” Valentine said.

Carter is playing to prove he can stay on the court and be a leader.

“We have to learn that none of that individual (expletive) matters as long as we’re not winning,” he said.

And on and on and on. The Bulls still hope to get Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. back in the near future. The final 22 games could be a death march or they could be a tease for the future.

The past is ugly.

“How have we arrived here? There are a lot of different factors,” LaVine said. “I don’t think some people played up to par. I don’t think we did the right things game-to-game. We fight but we don’t get the end result we need. Something has to change.

“Still, we have to stay consistent. Don’t let that doubt creep in. There are going to be frustrations with the season, frustration with the losses. Obviously, you could play the blame game with injuries and ‘poor me.’ I don’t think anybody gives a damn about that. (Teams are) going to try to get easy wins. You have to take pride in it. This is still our job. We have to compete and play.”

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