Believe it or not, we’ve made it past the NBA All-Star break. DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Ayo Dosunmu have basked in some well deserved recognition for their stellar seasons, but the work is really just beginning.

It’s been well published that the Bulls last 20+ games of the season are going to be tough. According to Tankathon.com, the Bulls have one of the hardest remaining strength of schedules left in the NBA. The majority of the opponents they will face are solidly in playoff contention with no incentive to tank. This is the make it or break it portion of the Bulls season, and I say BRING IT ON!

The Bulls have not been very good against opponents with winning records this season, winning less than 50% of the matchups. They struggle against disciplined defense, and they have also struggled to defend against well run pick-and-roll offense. All of this spells trouble for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the last 5 seasons.

A lot of fans have fallen back on the excuse that the Bulls are missing their key defenders in Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, waiting for their return to spark the Bulls. It’s true, the Bulls are not the same team without those players, but it must also be noted that they are NOT missing MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan, and All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. The “Big Three” are together and healthy for this stretch run, so they need to start beating teams with playoff aspirations.

Last night’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies is a prime example of the type of game the Bulls need to win. There is no reason for a team with a “Big Three” to have to dig there way out of a 17 point deficit in the 2nd half of any game. I get it, that kind of thing can happen to any team, and the Bulls aren’t the first team this season to run into the buzz-saw that is Ja Morant. Still, if the Bulls are serious contenders for the Eastern Conference crown, they CANNOT have dud games like last night.

Chicago Sun-Times beat writer, Joe Cowley, has been trolling Bulls fans on social media for the last month and a half, questioning this teams toughness and ability to compete against playoff teams. While Cowley is mostly doing this to get a rise out of Bulls fans, he has a point: We fans and, more importantly, the Bulls can’t lean on the excuse that we’re missing Caruso and Ball. Teams that win their conference championships do so in spite of adversity and injuries.

As good as DeMar DeRozan has been this season, if he can’t win without Ball and Caruso, maybe he is as big a waste of money as the NBA Experts were claiming this past summer. If Zach LaVine can’t win without Ball and Caruso, maybe he DOESN’T deserve a max contract at the end of this season. And if Nikola Vucevic can’t win without Ball and Caruso, Arturo Karnisovas and Marc Eversley may as well ship him back to Orlando for a bag of balls and Wendell Carter Jr’s jock strap.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. We’ve all seen how incredibly talented this Chicago Bulls team can be. DeRozan deserves the MVP talk. LaVine deserved to start the All-Star game over Jeremy Lin Jr in Atlanta. But all the individual talent in the world means jack sh-t when you can’t grab a rebound or get a defensive stop. That’s basic basketball, and it’s what separates pretenders from contenders.

I want to believe that the Bulls are contenders. We’ve seen flashes from them that they are, but if they drop more games against good teams like they did last night against the Grizzlies, then Joe Cowley is right, the Bulls won’t be mentally tough enough for a playoff run. If the Bulls go less than .500 in this critical stretch of games, we can only conclude that they are a bunch of overpaid pretenders destined for a 1st round playoff exit.

I am well aware that this has been my harshest blog of the season, but I’m not going to sugar coat the truth. It is incredibly difficult to win the NBA Championship. You cannot win a playoff series if you don’t rebound and defend.

I’ve tried to be very positive and accepting this season so I’ll end with this: On the one hand the season has been a triumph, the Bulls are relevant again, but on the other, it could end in disappointment if they don’t shore up their deficiencies. Whatever happens, the Bulls are playing with house money, and I plan on enjoying this stretch run. Meaningful games in March, April, May and, dare I say, June? Sign me up!

Until we see the Bulls winning those games, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!