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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."

The aftermath of Kris Dunn's terrifying fall now includes a concussion

The aftermath of Kris Dunn's terrifying fall now includes a concussion

At first, it had appeared that Kris Dunn had somehow avoided a concussion in his scary fall late in Wednesday's Bulls loss to the Warriors.

But that is no longer the case, as Dunn has been diagnosed with a concussion:

Fred Hoiberg said after the game Dunn was being evaluated for a concussion, but it was unsure at the time. 

Dunn did, however, take "a good little chunk out of the floor" with his teeth. He did not lose teeth when he fell face-first into the floor after he dunked and got caught on the rim just enough to throw his landing out of whack:

The 23-year-old point guard had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 30 minutes Wednesday night while defending Steph Curry. Dunn is averaging 13.7 points, 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game on the season.

It is not yet known how much time Dunn will miss, but he is currently not traveling with the team as they embark on a three-city road trip beginning Saturday in Atlanta.

Being a 'little slow, a little late' costs Bulls against Curry, Thompson and Warriors

Being a 'little slow, a little late' costs Bulls against Curry, Thompson and Warriors

The margin for error in playing against even a half-focused Golden State Warriors team is thin.

Wire-thin.

And as the Chicago Bulls took their litmus test against the defending NBA Champions following their recent success, an understated quote from the HBO series “The Wire” comes to mind as character Avon Barksdale looks at his brother in a hospital bed, locked in a vegetative state.

“The thing is, you only got to (mess) up once,” he said. “Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. And how you ain't never gonna be slow, never be late? You can't plan for (stuff) like this, man. It's life."

While Barksdale certainly wasn’t referring to Golden State sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the words apply to defending them and this Warriors team in the middle of a dynastic run, winning their 14th straight road game with a 119-112 win over the Bulls at the United Center Wednesday night.

Curry and Thompson are at the peak of their powers, with Thompson scoring 38 and Curry 30 as they combined for 13 triples. The two put on a show during the decisive third quarter after the Bulls took a shocking 66-63 lead into halftime.

Thompson hit three in a row out the gate where the Bulls lost track of him away from the ball and Curry followed up with a quick five, giving the champions a seven-point lead.

"If you're a split second late, you're dead,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Each scored 11 in the period, reaffirming how dangerous they are when sensing opportunity.

“They were on fire, both of them, at the same time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But yeah, it was an old school ‘Splash Brothers’ game.”

It was during that period where the Bulls went cold for an extended stretch, nearly seven minutes between scoring after putting up 72 points in the game’s first 26 minutes—not a shocker considering how the Bulls have played and the Warriors being without defensive mainstays Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

“Our defense picked up,” Thompson said. “They got a lot of wide open threes in the first half. And they were able to space the floor and get to the basket after that. We guarded much better and communicated much better than we did in that first half.”

By the time Jerian Grant’s layup ended the drought with 2:47, the Warriors had sprinted out to a 17-point lead and were seemingly on cruise control.

“We lost our minds out there,” Hoiberg said. “We weren’t hitting shots, then we couldn’t get back to get matched up. We relaxed. We stood up. We got caught on screens. We lost our spirit.”

It wasn’t that the Warriors’ collective will smothered the Bulls; they merely waited until they saw an opening, exerted themselves and took control. With the United Center at a fever pitch, the Warriors can’t match the nightly desire of their opponents, their energy and motivation to beat the champions.

What they’ve mastered in the last two seasons is staying afloat long enough before someone gets hot, then they run away and hide before the 48 minutes expires.

“There’s a balance of understanding, every game isn’t gonna be playoff intensity,” Curry said after the morning shootaround. “We’re not gonna play playoff minutes during the course of the regular season. The things we can focus on, will mentally prepare us for the playoffs. No matter if it’s playing Boston with the next best record in the league or playing whomever is at the bottom of the standings, it doesn’t matter.”

They focus on the tenets the Bulls hope to make theirs: defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball (11 turnovers), which is obscured by their dynastic scoring and shooting.

It initially looked over in the first 12 minutes, when Curry scored 12 points on a “too late, too slow” Kris Dunn and the Warriors had a 12-point lead. But the Bulls scored a remarkable 20 points in the last 3:11 of the period to tally their best opening stanza of the season and taking a 40-38 lead.

“A hard-fought, energetic first half,” Hoiberg said.

Perhaps the Warriors were a little shell-shocked after Jordan Bell exited in the first 24 seconds following an ankle injury, playing with unusual emotion before settling in and allowing the Bulls to display the emotion that has become their trademark in the last several weeks, buoying them to an unlikely finish before the half.

And they did it without the contributions of Zach LaVine, who struggled in his third game, going two for 12 in his mandated 20 minutes to score just five points.

The Bulls had six players in double figures while Nikola Mirotic provided the scoring as early and late when the Bulls made their comeback to make the score interesting, while the Warriors only had three in double figures: Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant, who was an afterthought of sorts with 19 points on six of 15 shooting.

On this night, it was Curry and Thompson doing the heavy lifting.

“We got sped up and they knocked down more shots than we did,” LaVine said. “We’re trying to match them at their game. They’re the gold standard. You can’t play that game. You have to get some stops.”

LaVine was tasked with chasing Thompson around screens, highlighting a step he needs to take in improving his off-ball defense.

A little slow, a little late.

“He’s extremely hard to guard,” LaVine said. “Especially when you have KD and Steph doing splits as well. Pachulia is good at screening. You gotta have your head on a swivel.”

Figuratively and emotionally, LaVine’s statement rings as the Bulls don’t have the talent to truly compete with the Warriors—and there truly isn’t a team that can say it does—they have to rely on emotion and execution to stay within arm’s reach of the champions.

“I don’t want to necessarily say we got lazy defensively, but we didn’t tighten up defensively,” said Justin Holiday, a member of the Warriors 2015 title team. “(Later) we did what we were supposed to do. I think we did a pretty good job, we just didn’t close it at the end.”

Dunn started to get going after a porous three quarters where he missed 10 shots in a row during a stretch, getting into the passing lane for a steal and uncontested dunk with 2:55 left to bring the Bulls close at 112-107—but fell on his face after letting the rim go and drawing blood from his mouth.

“He didn’t lose teeth,” Hoiberg said. “He’s being evaluated right now (for a concussion). There’s a good little chunk he took out of the floor. Tough kid.”

Tough kid, and tough team the Bulls have turned into from the last time they saw the Warriors when they played Washington Generals to the Warriors’ Globetrotters on Nov. 24 during a 49-point beatdown.

Mirotic has returned, and was a plus-25 in 27 minutes, scoring 24 points and hitting four triples. Bobby Portis continues to be an unsung catalyst with his style, and he battled veteran David West all night, scoring 12 points with four rebounds in 17 minutes.

David Nwaba came off the bench to guard Curry late, forcing turnovers and missed shots when the Bulls needed to do everything right to overcome a 32-12 third quarter.

“A guy like Curry and Thompson, any space you’re giving them, they’re shooting it,” Nwaba said. “They’re constantly on the move and I have to stay with them the best I can.”

When Nwaba was asked whether it was more important to stay with them on the ball or off, he sighed and said “Both. You can’t relax.”

And there’s the rub. No easy answer on this team, although the Bulls showed some character and moxie in picking themselves off the mat for the final 12 minutes to make it interesting.

“We’d like to play a perfect game,” Curry said. “But as I always say, the other team gets paid too and you’ve just got to find a way to win. Over the course of 48 minutes, we try to impose our will.”

Because sooner or later, you’ll be a little slow or a little soon—and it’ll be June, and we all know how that movie ends.