Celtics, looking up at No. 1 seed, visit Bulls

CHICAGO — As the regular season nears the finish line, the Boston Celtics have plenty of incentive to play well down the stretch.

More important, the Celtics still appear to have gas left in the tank.

The Celtics head into Monday’s game at the rebuilding Chicago Bulls with the first-place Toronto Raptors in their sights as they push to be the Eastern Conference’s top seed heading into the playoffs.

But after a disappointing loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday when the Celtics appeared to be in line to remain unbeaten since the All-Star break, Boston couldn’t hold on to a late lead. In the process, it dropped three games behind the Raptors in the loss column.

Despite being in position to knock off the NBA’s hottest team on Saturday, the Celtics understood that just being close to pulling off the feat won’t be enough if they want to accomplish what they hope to once the postseason rolls around.

“(Being) right there isn’t good enough,” Celtics guard Kyrie Irving told reporters after a 123-120 loss to Rockets, according to The Boston Globe.

The Celtics (44-20) have won four of their last five games. They remain confident that if they can maintain and build on what has been a solid stretch of play since the break, their goals of catching the Raptors and making a lengthy playoff run is certainly achievable.

The Celtics still have two games remaining against Toronto this season, but the Celtics realize they have to take care of their business in the meantime. That starts Monday against Chicago.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens knows that as well as his team has played this season, he doesn’t believe he has seen the best it can offer.

“We played really hard (against Houston) and we’re clearly getting better,” Stevens said Saturday, according to the Globe.

The Bulls (21-41) are at the opposite end of the spectrum as the Celtics remain in the midst of trying to evaluate young talent during the regular season’s final 20 games. Chicago snapped a five-game losing streak on Friday against the Dallas Mavericks as the Bulls won for just the third time in their past 16 games.

Chicago has broken its remaining games into five-game blocks during which Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg will experiment with varying combinations to pair which his young talented nucleus of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and rookie Lauri Markkanen.

Bobby Portis, who started the season suspended after punching then-teammate Nikola Mirotic in the face, has rebounded since the incident. He will be given the chance to show what he can do as a starter as the Bulls continue to evaluate what they have in place as they continue to build toward the future.

Portis hopes to make the most of the opportunity even though he has become accustomed to providing energy off the bench.

“I don’t really worry about individual stats or anything like that,” Portis said recently, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I go out there and try to play hard every night. Starting or coming off the bench doesn’t matter, as long as the team does well. I’ve been a team guy my whole life.

“One day, I would like to be a (permanent) starter. But right now, I’m accepting this role because I feel like I fit in really well for the team.”