The Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers expected to have their franchise players back by now. Their ongoing absences appear to have caught up to both teams.
While it remains unclear if or when Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum will return this season, the Bulls are tumbling down the playoff standings and the visiting 76ers may be ruining their postseason hopes altogether going into this meeting Thursday night.
A rematch of these teams' 2012 first-round playoff series - one in which Rose tore his ACL - almost certainly won't happen. Philadelphia (22-33) has fallen well behind eighth-place Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, and Chicago (32-25) has plummeted to sixth after entering this month at No. 3 and leading the Central Division.
That lead is gone as the Bulls have gone 4-8 in February to drop four games back of Indiana in the Central, not to mention 10 behind East-leading Miami after being within two earlier this month.
"We have to find a way," center Joakim Noah said. "We have to play with more urgency and play together. I think that is disappointing right now. It's been a long stretch where we haven't been playing great basketball."
It's bad enough that rumors are swirling Rose might not play this season after it was originally believed he'd return around the All-Star break, but other injuries are hurting Chicago's cause.
Noah is playing through a right foot injury and has failed to reach double figures in rebounds in a season-high four straight games. Kirk Hinrich (elbow) returned Tuesday after missing three games and 10 of 11, but Taj Gibson (ankle) began what is expected to be a two-week absence as the Bulls lost 101-98 to a Cleveland team missing Kyrie Irving.
"When you are down a player, you have to do it collectively and we were doing that for a long time. But now we have exhaled," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "The result is not going to be good. We have to correct that."
Tuesday marked the Bulls' third straight home loss, their worst skid at the United Center since dropping five straight March 1-19, 2010.
The 76ers' run of eight consecutive road losses is their worst since a 10-game slide Nov. 17-Dec. 16, 2006.
They've dropped six in a row overall, recording their longest losing streak since the 2009-10 season, and Bynum's offseason acquisition remains worthless. Philadelphia hoped to see him by the New Year, but the former Lakers center has yet to play for the 76ers due to knee problems.
"The team that we tried to put together, we've never seen," coach Doug Collins said. "So i think is what happens is that when you take a huge piece away, your warts show."
One reason for the recent struggles is the man starting in Bynum's spot, Spencer Hawes, has averaged 6.8 points on 29.0 percent shooting in the last four games.
No Philadelphia starter scored more than 10 on Tuesday in a 98-84 home loss to an Orlando team which had lost 10 consecutive road games.
"I sure hope it can't get any worse than this," Collins said.
The 76ers have lost four straight to the Bulls, including two this season, and now look to avoid being swept in the season series for the first time since 1996-97.