On their way to the 2010-11 Eastern Conference finals, the Chicago Bulls won their last nine regular-season games and 13 of their last 14.
Perhaps a better comparison are the 2004-05 Bulls, who, like this season’s team that is making its first playoff appearance in five years following a rebuild, crashed the postseason party for the first time in seven years following the dynasty. That 2004-05 team closed 15-4.
Heck, even the 2009-10 Bulls, facing a win-to-get-in situation on the road in Charlotte, capped a three-game win streak to enter that season’s playoffs.
And the 2016-17 Bulls survived internal drama between Rajon Rondo and the Jimmy Butler-Dwyane Wade pairing to go 9-4 entering the playoffs.
The point is: Teams want to be playing their best basketball as the postseason arrives.
“We’re not playing our best basketball,” DeMar DeRozan said following Friday's 133-117 loss to the Hornets.
The Bulls’ slide goes deeper than that, though. In fact, the argument could be made that the Bulls are playing their worst basketball of the season.
And rarely do you see a discrepancy as great as the one between the team that led the Eastern Conference for most of January — and as late as Feb. 24 — and the one whose net rating ranks 28th since Feb. 25.
The Bulls are 6-15 in that span.
So what happened?
Coach Billy Donovan has cited a multitude of issues. They range from poor defensive communication to cooled-off shooting to not “winning the margins.” That’s coach-speak for understanding the intensity of competition needed for every possession — getting over every screen, boxing out, diving for loose balls, shot-fake discipline, following the game plan, cutting forcefully in half court offense, sprinting in transition opportunities.
The defensive errors in the latest loss were glaring, borderline shocking. Not only did the Hornets put up an opponent-season-high 79 points in the first half, they did so with uncontested driving dunks and wide-open 3-pointers off botched or miscommunicated coverages.
Underscoring the Bulls’ current state of affairs, Donovan tried to take the majority of the blame for the defensive issues afterward, but DeRozan grabbed it back and put it on the players.
There’s no denying the impact of long-term absences by Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball. Even with Caruso back, he has been in and out of the lineup with a sore back and not making the same impact he had been earlier in the season.
Nevertheless, the Bulls’ core of DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević has started 53 games together. Their net rating in 1,206 shared minutes is minus-1.1.
At this point, the Bulls aren’t offering much evidence that their first-round playoff series against either the Bucks, Celtics or 76ers will be competitive. For starters, they are 1-10 against those three teams.
Plus, the Bucks and Celtics are two of teams who hung double-digit home losses on the Bulls at the United Center in the season’s final week.
Reiterating: Discrepancies of this magnitude between how this team looked for much of this season and how it’s playing as the season is ending are rare.
“For sure, (it’s) a mental hurdle,” DeRozan said. “But we’re getting to a place where you’ve got to get over it. We’re getting to where it counts, and that’s the playoffs. We’re a week away. We’ve got one more game.
“But it’s going to have to click because you don’t want to go in a playoff series with this mental approach that we’ve been playing with the last couple of games. We’ve got to shift it.”
Time is running out.