Bulls shoot for third straight win when Hornets vist

CHICAGO — Playing without a full contingent of talent has become part of the Chicago Bulls‘ reality of late.

And as Chicago heads into the final five games of the regular season starting Tuesday against the Charlotte Hornets, nothing is expected to change.

The Bulls have won two straight games for the first time since mid-January. But they remain without guards Kris Dunn (toe) and Zach LaVine (left knee), both of whom have missed nine games. The Bulls announced Monday that they will be shut down for the rest of the year after both fell out of game shape because of their injuries.

Even without two pieces of a core that has come to be known as its Big Three, Chicago has found a way to register wins over the Orlando Magic and the Washington Wizards, whom the Bulls beat 113-94 behind 18 3-pointers on Sunday.

Sparking Sunday’s effort was rookie Lauri Markkanen, who, along with Dunn and LaVine, make up the centerpiece of Chicago’s rebuilding effort. Markkanen, who has played in both of the Bulls’ consecutive victories after dealing with a back issue, scored 23 points and was 5-of-8 from 3-point range.

But without Dunn and LaVine, the Bulls haven’t played up to the potential that team officials believe is possible.

“I don’t think there was any point where Lauri, Zach and Kris were ever at their own peak when they were playing together,” center Robin Lopez said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s a tantalizing aspect that we haven’t even seen yet.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said getting LaVine and Dunn back next season gives him a lot of hope.

The Bulls (26-51) continue to remain focused on the future, but Bulls assistant Jim Boylen — who coached Sunday in place of an ill Hoiberg — told reporters after Sunday’s victory that he liked the way the Bulls competed and remained engaged.

That remains the plan for the Bulls, who have stayed confident throughout an experimental period when the front office has given younger players more opportunity to prove themselves.

“(It) just shows the capabilities of our team, the potential of our team,” Bulls guard/forward Denzel Valentine told reporters Sunday, according to Bulls.com. “We have great players. We just have to learn how to bring that same type of focus and mentality every night.”

The Bulls’ next test will come against the Hornets, who, like Chicago, has struggled with injuries. Charlotte (34-44) has lost three straight games after a 119-102 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford told reporters Sunday that the team will shut down center Cody Zeller for the remainder of the season. Zeller has missed 11 straight games with soreness and swelling in his left knee.

“I would say we’re at the stage now where it almost becomes ‘why'” ask him to play, Clifford told reporters before Sunday’s loss, according to The Charlotte Observer. “It’s so hard to not play for long stretches off the season. Why, with five games left, would we even play him? It makes more sense to me to let him get back to 100 percent and then just start again next (season).”

In addition to Zeller, forward Treveon Graham could miss the remainder of the season in concussion protocol. Rookie Dwayne Bacon (ankle sprain) also missed Sunday’s game against the 76ers.

One bright spot in the Hornets’ latest loss? Dwight Howard, who registered his 49th double-double to tie him with Larry Johnson for the franchise record.