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Nikola Mirotic making Bulls click by playing with freedom, emotion

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USA TODAY

Nikola Mirotic making Bulls click by playing with freedom, emotion

Somewhere when Nikola Mirotic was sitting, recovering from a concussion and broken bones in his face from the hands of a teammate, he had time to think about what his basketball life would look like when he returned.

The overthinker vowed to make the game simple for himself, to play freely and to get out of his own head. The player who’d often sit and stew at his locker after games going over mistakes he’d later repeat anyways hasn’t reappeared this season, not yet.

The freedom is obvious. The emotion is unexpected. The wins, especially the latest triumph, have been satisfying.

“It can look very bad in the beginning but at the end of the day…not saying it’s good but just trying to be positive and out there making my life simple in the game,” Mirotic said. “Enjoying the basketball. That’s my goal.”

Mirotic helped the Bulls pull a sixth consecutive win out of their keister in a 117-115 decision over the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. Mirotic heard fans chanting his name in the final minute, when he put his stamp on the game—and essentially, delivered a surprising knockout punch considering the Bulls trailed by nine with 5:40 remaining.

“I told them in the huddle, our body language sucked,” a suddenly candid Fred Hoiberg said. “It was like we were down 20 and it was like a two-possession game. So, our guys went out there and rallied.”

Mirotic had already dazzled the hometown faithful by putting Dario Saric on skates with a stepback triple in the first half, but he saved the best of his 22-point, 10-rebound night after the half, putting up 15 and seven in the final 24 minutes.

Lauri Markkanen hit a triple, followed by Mirotic blocking a layup from Saric. Moments later, the ball made its way to the uber-confident Kris Dunn who tied the game with a triple and sent the United Center into delirium.

Yes, that was Mirotic battling three 76ers for loose balls, sliding over in the attempt to take charges on defense. That was Mirotic motioning to the crowd to get loud, washing in the love hardly anybody could’ve foreseen a month ago.

Hoiberg said Mirotic was a better defensive player than he was given credit for, but because he was inconsistent in what he was advertised to be his first few years it fell under the radar.

“He understands the game plan, he knows when a mismatch is going on in the post and when to come get the ball out of somebody’s hands,” Hoiberg said. “I talk about this a lot, he just does the little things on the defensive end that go unnoticed.”

There’s been no mention of rescinding the request to be traded, so if this is temporary it can benefit all parties in the meantime—even if his motivation for being so locked-in is to hit the reset button in another zip code.

Make no mistake, the Bulls were on the verge of a momentary breakthrough with their 10-game losing streak—or a breakdown with so many close losses, depending on how you look at it. But Mirotic individually having something to prove, and this team needing a boost from somebody, anybody, made this a marriage of convenience that’s beneficial for all sides.

Dunn’s confidence is worlds better than the player we saw a month ago. Portis has been a revelation of sorts after his eight-game suspension. David Nwaba is a front office gem, a culture guy who plays embarrassingly hard.

Mirotic didn’t make those things so, but in this fleeting period he’s what makes this all click.

“It’s my moment, the team’s moment,” Mirotic said. “I’m very proud, especially the team finding a way to win again. We were struggling before I came and didn’t enjoy basketball.”

It’s hard to enjoy the game when you’re getting your brains beat in one night followed by not being good or experienced enough to win games the following night. When Mirotic returned, he provided just enough talent and had more experience than 90 percent of the roster.

He needed them to give him an opportunity to put the drama behind everyone in the moment. They needed him, simply, to make shots, and the success is allowing him fun he hasn’t had in years.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed playing basketball like this,” Mirotic said. “Especially coming from the tough moment for me was just huge just enjoying the game. Sharing the ball and finding the right guy in the right position.”

Six wins later, Mirotic is scoring 20 a night with 7.3 rebounds on 52 percent shooting and 50 from three. He finally admitted the incident with Bobby Portis woke him up a bit—even if one could say he sleepwalked through most of his time here.

“Both. I need it (emotion). I need that out there,” Mirotic said. “At the end of the day, we’re all emotional. Last season you probably didn’t see me having emotion in the game. When you’re winning everything gets easier.”

Even before the incident, things seemed to line up for a player like Mirotic. We’ve seen this before, with other players on other teams. Talented guy underachieves, then entering a contract year puts it together—be it for a temporary mirage or something substantial.

The long standoff Mirotic had with the Bulls this summer had him in the weight room instead of on the Spanish national team. And when Portis’ punch put him out for an extended period of time, it was the longest Mirotic had gone without meaningful basketball competition.

In that time, he seemed to discover the simplicity that made “March Niko” so magical—and maddening— in his first few years.

“When I’m out there, I’m just trying to make it simple. It’s true I’m playing with a lot of confidence,” Mirotic said. “It’s been a long time, I didn’t have fun like now. Playing basketball. I tell myself, Niko, try to do your work, have fun and try to put all the work you did this summer into the game. It’s all I’ve been trying.”

The Bulls have undergone a temporary transformation and Mirotic seems to have won over teammates who didn’t have much experience with him before training camp.

“We’ve been saying it—Niko’s back,” Dunn said. “He’s been playing unbelievable basketball. He’s a very good leader, trusting to the young group. We’re very appreciative to have him back.”

It’s been a sight to see, both from the outside and even from Mirotic, who didn’t always have great support from his teammates through the years.

“It’s huge, seeing all those guys from the bench jumping and having fun,” Mirotic said. “It was just not me that wasn’t having fun. Before I came back, everybody had their heads down. But we were always practicing well. Now we’re playing with different energy. We’re coming after (the other team). That makes a huge difference."

Bulls in the playoffs: Nikola Mirotic can't miss and the Pelicans are up 3-0

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USA TODAY

Bulls in the playoffs: Nikola Mirotic can't miss and the Pelicans are up 3-0

When the Bulls traded Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans on Feb. 1, the consensus belief was that the deal was a win-win for both sides.

That still may be true, but the way Mirotic has played the last two weeks has made invaluable to the Pelicans, who hold a commanding 3-0 lead on the Blazers following Thursday night's blowout win.

Mirotic was back at it again, scoring a playoff career-high 30 points on 12 of 15 shooting, making 4 of 6 3-poiners, and added eight rebounds, three steals and a block. Oh, and he did all this in 30 minutes.

Mirotic has been great in three games against the third-seeded Blazers, averaging 21.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting a ridiculous .585/.478/1.000.

But it's really been a two-week tear for Mirotic during the Pelicans' eight-game winning streak going back to the final 10 days of the regular season.

In those eight games Mirotic has averaged 24.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.4 steals and has shot 57 percent from the field.

The Bulls are happy to have the 22nd overall pick in June's draft, but at this rate would they rather have Mirotic still in the fold? He seems to have turned the corner. Remarkable stuff. At the very least, it's easy to root for him.

Rajon Rondo, Pelicans: #PlayoffRondo, who we featured two days ago, was also back at it in Game 3, going for 16 points on 7 of 12 shooting, five rebounds and 11 more assists. He now has a league-high 37 assists in three games against the Blazers and has played excellent defense on that dangerous Blazers backcourt. He's also shooting 50 percent from the field. This is incredible stuff.

Marco Belinelli, Sixers: More remarkable stuff from a player who was an afterthought until about a month ago. Belinelli, who played 52 games with the Hawks before his release, has exploded in the postseason with Philadelphia. He scored 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting and hit four more 3-pointers, giving him 10 in the series. The Sixers are up 2-1 thanks in large part to Belinelli's 20.7 points and 1.7 steals. He remains a key cog off the bench.

NBA Draft Tracker: A third Holiday brother in the NBA

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: A third Holiday brother in the NBA

Next season there will be three Holiday brothers playing in the NBA. Justin is currently a starter for the Bulls, while Jrue is doing big things for the Pelicans in their opening round playoff series against Portland.

Aaron Holiday is a 6-foot-1 point guard coming off a big junior season at UCLA. He was on the court for an incredible 37.7 minutes out of 40 for head coach Steve Alford, averaging 20.3 ppg, 5.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Holiday shot .461 from the field and an impressive .429 from three point range.

What Holiday lacks in height, he makes up for with athleticism and competitiveness. The Bruins were overmatched many nights in a strong Pac-12 Conference, but Holiday was able to lead them to an NCAA tournament appearance with his scoring ability and defensive intensity. His ability to drive by an initial defender and get into the lane set up scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Holiday’s quickness and long range shooting ability should serve him well as he heads to the professional level.

Where does Holiday fit for the Bulls? It seems pretty unlikely the Bulls will draft a point guard this summer, given the fact John Paxson told reporters in his end of the season news conference that Kris Dunn would be the starter at that position with Cameron Payne as the backup. The Bulls also have Jerian Grant under contract for next season and Ryan Arcidiacono could be back on a two-way deal.

Given the fact the NBA has become a point guard driven league, Holiday has a good chance to hear his name called among the top 20 picks. Washington could be a landing spot at 15 since the Wizards have been trying unsuccessfully over the last few seasons to find a consistent backup for John Wall.

It’s very unusual for three brothers to make it to the NBA. The Jones (Caldwell, Charles, Major and Wil), Russells (Campy, Frank and Walker), Barrys (Brent, Jon and Drew) and Plumlees (Mason, Miles and Marshall) are included on the short list of siblings to accomplish that feat.

Next season we’ll be able to add the Holidays to that list, and don’t be surprised if Aaron winds up having a long and productive career like his older brothers.