(AP) — Although they’ve had their share of big wins lately, the Chicago Bulls haven’t been able to take care of business against lesser opponents.
It might help if they can get their All-Star forward back in the lineup.
The Bulls will try to win for the seventh time in nine games on Monday night when they host the Charlotte Bobcats, who snapped a lengthy losing streak in their last trip to Chicago.
While Chicago (26-17) has moved one-half game ahead of Indiana atop the Central Division with its recent surge, its struggles against teams with losing records continued in a 86-73 loss at Washington on Saturday.
The Bulls have won five of their last seven games against teams with winning records by an average of 8.4 points, including a pair of victories at Eastern Conference leaders Miami and New York.
However, they’ve won only five of eight against losing clubs by a slim plus-0.7 margin of victory. Two of those wins have come by three or fewer points, and all three losses have been by double digits.
“You gotta get ready for everybody,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you start taking shortcuts, the results aren’t gonna be good.”
Chicago could get a boost with the return of Luol Deng, who is expected to be a game-time decision after missing five games because of a hamstring injury.
The loss of Deng, who was recently named to the East All-Star team, has been eased by the strong play of backup Jimmy Butler. The second-year forward has averaged 14.2 points and more than 45 minutes per game starting in Deng’s place.
Deng has averaged 22.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds in his last three games against the Bobcats.
The Bulls, though, look to bounce back offensively after scoring their second-lowest point total, including season lows with 11 points in the third quarter and 29 in the second half on Saturday.
Nate Robinson was the only player to score in double figures with 19, giving him 41 in his last two games.
Joakim Noah narrowly missed a triple-double with nine points, 17 rebounds and a career high-tying 10 assists. He has averaged 16.0 rebounds his last four games and is among the top five in the league.
The Bulls had averaged 99.4 points on 47.7 percent shooting in five straight wins over the Bobcats before finishing with 81 and 35.1, respectively, as visiting Charlotte pulled out a 10-point win to snap their 18-game losing streak on Dec. 31.
Starting guards Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson combined for 34 points, while Ramon Sessions and former Bull Ben Gordon teamed for 30 off the bench.
Charlotte, though, is a league-worst 11-32 with just three wins in 12 games since, but will try to capture consecutive victories for the first time since Nov. 19-21.
The team’s backcourt is also playing well heading into this meeting after totaling 81 points as the Bobcats shot a season-high 50.7 percent in a 102-101 win over short-handed Minnesota on Saturday. Sessions has 40 points on 17 of 27 (63.0 percent) shooting in his last two games, while Walker has averaged 23.7 while hitting 10 of 15 from 3-point range in his last three.
“(Walker) is the face of our whole deal,” coach Mike Dunlap said. “He’s getting more comfortable as our quarterback.”
The Bobcats have averaged 87.1 points in their last seven losses, but have won three of four when scoring over 100.
That isn’t likely to be easy against a Chicago team that hasn’t allowed an opponent to surpass the century mark in regulation in nine straight contests.
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