Guard Payne hit with D- mo­tion

Bulls pre­par­ing to be with­out him for stretch run

Chicago Sun-Times - - BULLSBEAT - HERB GOULD Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Her­bGould and at TMG­col­lege­s­ports.com.

It’s look­ing as though the Bulls, who have 12 games left in the reg­u­lar sea­son, might have to sol­dier on with­out guard Cameron Payne.

The Bulls will start an im­por­tant week Tues­day in Toronto with­out Payne, who’s be­ing as­signed to their Windy City team in the D- League for at least a few days.

Payne, who was ac­quired in the trade Feb. 23 with the Thun­der that sent Taj Gib­son and Doug McDer­mott to Ok­la­homa City, has missed the last three games with sore­ness in his sur­gi­cally re­paired right foot.

‘‘ We’re go­ing to send Cam down to the D- League,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said after prac­tice Mon­day. ‘‘ He’s go­ing to prac­tice [ Mon­day], and then he’ll play in [ the] game [ Tues­day]. And then the plan is to see how things go with the game, prac­tice with Windy City again on Wed­nes­day and then play in the game on Thurs­day, as well.’’

But how­much of this is for re­hab and how much is a re­as­sign­ment in which Payne, who hasn’t daz­zled with the Bulls, needs to prove his NBA cre­den­tials? The ev­i­dence leans heav­ily to­ward the lat­ter.

Payne has been un­der­whelm­ing in his nine games with the Bulls, av­er­ag­ing six points and 1.7 as­sists in 15 min­utes. Over­all, it hardly has been the stuff of a point guard of the fu­ture.

The thing is, the Bulls can’t wait. One game out of the fi­nal play­off spot in the East­ern Con­fer­ence, Hoiberg and his play­ers are fo­cused on mak­ing the most of their fi­nal dozen games.

The Bulls’ four games in the next six days will tell a lot. The stretch be­gins with a visit to the Rap­tors, a team the Bulls have beaten a mind-bog­gling 11 con­sec­u­tive times.

After that, two of the Bulls’ next three games are against the Pis­tons ( Wed­nes­day) and Bucks ( Sun­day), who are just ahead of them in the jock­ey­ing for the fi­nal play­off berths. In other words, by the end of the week­end, the Bulls’ post­sea­son prospects prob­a­bly will have taken a se­ri­ous turn for the bet­ter or worse.

Rest­less fans might not be in­ter­ested in a team that’s not likely to stick around long in the play­offs, even if it gets there. But that goal mat­ters to the play­ers.

‘‘ It would mean a lot [ to make the play­offs],’’ guard Michael Carter-Wil­liams said. ‘‘ We’re def­i­nitely not in panic mode. We’re more hun­gry than ever. We go into each game try­ing to win. Nowit’s crunch time, so we’re re­ally bit­ing at the bul­let. We’re just go­ing out and giv­ing it our all each night.’’

Hoiberg seems more bur­dened than ex­cited about the ef­fort to try to sal­vage some­thing. Asked whether he was hav­ing any fun at all, he said, ‘‘ No,’’ then added: ‘‘ You just try to go out there and have good prac­tices. This is the first time in al­most three weeks where we’ve had two [ open] days— a day [ off] to give the guys an op­por­tu­nity to catch their breath, then bounce back with a good prac­tice. [ We had] a spir­ited prac­tice. You hope that car­ries over to the game, not only [ Tues­day] but the re­main­der of our stretch.’’

Is it stress­ful?

‘‘ No, you can’t look at it that way,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘ It’s all about the prepa­ra­tion. It’s about buy­ing in. It’s about do­ing the lit­tle things.

‘‘[ In] our sec­ond half [ Fri­day] against Wash­ing­ton, we did amuch bet­ter job. In the Utah game [ Satur­day], [ from] the mid­dle of the first quar­ter . . . all the way through the fourth, we were pretty darn good. You take those things that you do well, and you try to build on it.’’

| STEVEN SENNE/ AP

Guard Cameron Payne, whom the Bulls ac­quired in a trade with the Thun­der on Feb. 23, has av­er­aged six points and 1.7 as­sists in nine games with the team.

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