Technically, the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets still have a chance to make the playoffs.
However, either team would have to make a strong turnaround if it wants to avoid an early summer.
After a week off, the clubs will begin the post-All-Star break portion of their schedules when they meet Thursday night in Chicago. It is the fourth and final meeting of the season for the teams, with Charlotte holding a 2-1 edge so far.
The Bulls will try to bounce back after sliding into the break on a six-game losing streak. The Hornets won their past two games after winning just one of the previous 14.
Chicago has been depleted by injuries but potentially could welcome back forward/center Wendell Carter Jr. against the Hornets.
Carter, 20, has not played since Jan. 6 against the Dallas Mavericks because of a high ankle sprain. He is averaging 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds through 37 games this season, his second in the league.
"We still have a chance to make it to the playoffs, but if not, all it's gonna do is help us set the tone for next year," Carter told reporters recently. "These last ... games we should take very seriously, and no matter what the fans, no matter what people outside this organization are saying, we still have a shot. So I feel like it's very important to play hard."
The first two meetings between the Bulls and Hornets were decided by one point apiece. Charlotte emerged with a 126-125 win on its home court in the season opener Oct. 23. The teams met in Charlotte again Nov. 23, with the Bulls holding on for a 116-115 victory.
In the teams' third meeting Dec. 13 in Chicago, the Hornets pulled away for an 83-73 win. Devonte' Graham scored 16 points to lead Charlotte, and Zach LaVine and Ryan Arcidiacono scored 12 apiece to pace the Bulls.
One player who might feel especially good heading into tipoff is the Hornets' Miles Bridges, who is coming off winning Most Valuable Player in the NBA's Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. Bridges helped Team USA rally for a win over Team World on the Bulls' home court.
The Hornets entered the break with back-to-back road wins over the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, but general manager Mitch Kupchak and others know that significant work remains in order to end a playoff drought that is three seasons and counting.
"I get a good feeling about this group going forward," Kupchak said in comments published by the Charlotte Observer. "Having said that, I wasn't brought here for us to have a good feeling. We've got to get somewhere."
Carter is not the only player sidelined for the Bulls. They also have been without Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Kris Dunn and others because of injuries during the past couple months.
"I feel like before me and Lauri got hurt, we were on a steady pace to get in the bottom half of the playoffs, and now that we've been hurt, it's kind of put that to the side," Carter told reporters. "Now it's just more so getting the team healthy, just trying to get everybody right, and then we can focus on making it to the playoffs again."
--Field Level Media