Bulls

More muscle, more money, more confidence: Nikola Mirotic ready to show consistency for Bulls

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USA TODAY

More muscle, more money, more confidence: Nikola Mirotic ready to show consistency for Bulls

Nikola Mirotic didn’t exactly lumber over to the media after the Bulls’ first practice, as a new man armed with a two-year, $27 million deal and 22 pounds worth of additional weight from the summer, the first time in which he didn’t play overseas.

He claimed there were no hard feelings from the summerlong impasse with the Bulls, where his restricted free-agent status prevented him from truly getting to the market, and his career inconsistencies also made it tough for the Bulls to give him an extended contract.

“I knew it was going to happen because with me it’s like every time is the last second. I don’t know why,” Mirotic said. “They made me an offer at the beginning of free agency, so I didn’t take that deal.”

So while his saga dragged along after he couldn’t find suitors, he stayed in Chicago for the most part, adding the bulk—although some would say it was stress weight considering it’s believed Mirotic wanted a deal in the $16-17 million range annually.

“Some people thought I was worried with my contract. No, I was very calm, working here until the middle of August,” Mirotic said. “My weight is feeling great and I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to this season, you know.”

“I’m feeling good. I’ve never felt that strong in my legs, feeling better with the rebounding, and I worked all summer in the low post, especially when I play that pick-and-roll and they switch me, so I need to be available to play in the low post against small guys. I was really working on getting stronger down there so I can finish.”

Coming to Chicago with plenty of fanfare, Mirotic has shown flashes but never the consistency many expected. Slow starts were accompanied by strong finishes after the All-Star break and the cycle of “if Niko can get it right” started all over again—only leading to more frustration when expectations weren’t met.

“I know that you guys (media) are very disappointed. I saw that the last two, three years, those reactions to that,” Mirotic said. “It is what it is. I came back just thinking about what happened. I knew what happened. I worked on all my weaknesses this summer. It’s time to change some things. I’m in a place where I can improve and get better.”

This time last year, the Bulls did everything they could to make Mirotic seize the power forward spot in training camp. Too bad Taj Gibson wasn’t notified and outworked everybody to join the first five.

But Gibson was traded in midseason, Jimmy Butler was traded and Dwyane Wade was bought out Sunday night, leaving Mirotic as somewhat an elder statesman on a team that doesn’t carry any playoff expectations for the season.

Now he’ll have to battle rookie Lauri Markkanen and third-year forward Bobby Portis for minutes at power forward, since it doesn’t appear he’ll play any small forward after playing there sparingly his first two seasons.

One can see Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg playing Mirotic and Markkanen together at center and power forward to have two floor-stretchers—although defense and rebounding will be a concern in the pairing.

“Everything's open right now. Lauri obviously had a great summer,” Hoiberg said. “He's got to work himself back into great shape right now. Basically since the European championships have been over, he's taken time off to recover and regroup and recharge his batteries.

“Bobby Portis has had a great summer. He's been around pretty much every day since the summer league.”

Mirotic said he was notified by management in the exit meetings the team would look different, but didn’t foresee Butler being traded on draft night. Now as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be a primary option on offense and until Zach LaVine makes his Chicago debut—which likely won’t take place until mid-December—he’ll have plenty of time to display his versatility in Hoiberg’s free-flowing system.

“It’s great, especially knowing how Fred wants to play this year,” Mirotic said. “They’re going to play fast, there’s no more like holding the ball, playing isolation. Now it’s more free, like when we used to play with Rajon (Rondo) on that second unit. Just play free and share the basketball. This is how it’s going to look.”

Clearly one who’s aware of the prognosticators who’ve said the Bulls will finish at the bottom of the standings, Mirotic added a bit of a bold statement, although it should be taken with a grain of preseason salt.

“I don’t think we’re going to be that bad like people are thinking.’’

Competition bringing out the best in Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic

Competition bringing out the best in Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic

Competition can bring out the worst among us—insecurity, annoyance and even actions that can be deemed out of character. But it can also bring out a sense of gratefulness, desperation and even unexpected chemistry.

It can turn the story of Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic from being about one punch to them developing…a 1-2 punch.

The latter was on full display in the Bulls’ third straight win, an impressive 108-85 thrashing of the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics at the United Center. Mirotic was launching heat check after heat check while Portis was in his wide-eyed glory, matching Mirotic’s first-half production with 13 points, playing without hesitation but with a conscience.

In the absence of Lauri Markkanen, a late scratch with back spasms that developed through the afternoon, the incumbent power forwards played the way they expected to coming into the season.

The way Fred Hoiberg hoped this season would be one of competition developing, of culture resetting. Before the drama and before the 10-game losing streak that had the Bulls coach in a lose-lose situation.

“I talked about that a lot, even when we were going through the losing streak,” Hoiberg said. “Guys continued to work and compete, they were attentive at practice and film sessions. Kept their heads down and kept grinding and showed resiliency. They’re doing for each other. There’s no selfishness out there.”

The way they individually believed in themselves, before their actions derailed things, before Markkanen emerged and made observers feel their incident was a blessing in disguise as some form of silver lining.

But they didn’t have a sliver of understanding into Portis’ thinking, or even Mirotic’s motivations. Portis had to deal with third-degree burns on his foot due to a heat pack being on it too long, shortly after the All-Star break last season. So he couldn’t even take advantage of Taj Gibson being traded at the deadline to make a name for himself, with more playing time to be had.

Not even Portis himself wanted to get in his own way after putting in plenty of work through the summer, as his 23-point performance showed Monday. As he’s trying to show on a consistent basis, averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.

“I got a little stinger on my arm, it still hurts but it’s good,” Portis said. “When you love something, you don’t let anything affect it.”

So even through his transgression threatened his immediate future and overall future in the NBA, it all came back to the notion of competition.

“The best thing about this game is being able to compete and earn your minutes and earn your keep,” Portis said. “It’s what I had to do my first three years is earn my keep. I feel like I’ve done that and I have to keep going. It’s fun to go out there and play this game. Go out there and play hard, talk to the crowd and be myself.”

So when Portis and Mirotic work the spread game to rare perfection, it’s second nature to slap five on the way back downcourt. Mirotic rolling hard to the basket freed up Portis for one of his three triples. Portis sealing off his man led to the Celtics overhelping, leading to a Mirotic jumper.

“Bobby and I, we’re playing good,” Mirotic said. “We are finding each other during the game, and we are bringing the energy the team needs.”

“When we’re both on the court, it seems the team is playing really well. We need to give that credit to Fred because Fred is the one making us play. He’s the guy calling the plays and putting us in the right spot to play.”

Mirotic likes to joke things have fallen into place since he’s returned, as the Bulls are 3-0 since he’s been active. But there is a comfort level, both with the players and the coaching staff, having an experienced player on the floor.

Take the trade demands and Mirotic’s feelings on it however you will, but he’s played like March Niko, not pre-All Star break Niko who drives fans crazy with his inconsistency.

Joking with reporters about his play saying, “I know it’s not March”, Mirotic is well aware of the discrepancy from the magical month to the other maddening months through the season.

In March, Mirotic averages 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. In the others, 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds.

“I’ve been having a lot of confidence in myself so far,” Mirotic said. “I’ve been watching a lot of film and putting in a lot of work this summer. It was just about time for me to be back and get more minutes and get my conditioning back.”

Hoiberg said he’s not surprised by the chemistry between the two, and whether all will ever be well shouldn’t be expected. But Hoiberg is either clairvoyant or lying when he said he saw this coming.

“I’m not. They’re both pros,” Hoiberg said. “They’re both guys that are gonna go out and play with great passion and emotion. You can see it with the way they’re playing off each other out there. It’s been fun to watch.”

And although the Celtics were playing a funky back-to-back after beating Detroit Sunday afternoon, the Bulls’ effort sent them into submission. Portis is feeding off David Nwaba’s energy and it’s becoming a hallmark of this Bulls team—let’s be honest here. Effort had better be a hallmark of this team, this season.

Portis is playing for his career as restricted free agency is around the corner, playing for a chance to rebuild a reputation before he had a chance to truly develop one in his first two years.

And if it happens through the culture of competition, so be it.

“When you lose 10 straight it’s like the whole world is on your shoulders,” Portis said. “Now when you win everybody’s smiling and happy. I got to see both sides.”

“I feel like everybody’s learning their role. When we go out there and play a team, they’ll know whether they win or lose, the Bulls will give it their all.”

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

It’s not exactly a skill, which is good considering the makeup of the Bulls’ roster. And it’s tough to measure, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they rank among other teams. But its results can be easily seen, and in a year where the Bulls have swapped out talent for youth, they’re discovering an energy and passion that’s suddenly resulting in unexpected victories.

The Bulls moved their winning streak to three games on Monday night against a tired and depleted – and yet still far more talented – Celtics team, earning a decisive 108-85 victory that displayed just how much this team still cares. Granted, caring alone and playing with energy won’t have them playing in May or June, but good habits being formed by young players give some optimism for the future.

It was everywhere on Monday night. A letdown of sorts from the Celtics could have been predicted. Boston was playing its third road game in four nights, and the first two (San Antonio on Friday, Detroit on Sunday) were anything but easy. MVP candidate Kyrie Irving was resting a quad contusion and even Al Horford (knee) wasn’t cleared to play until about 20 minutes until tip.

But talent alone still could have pushed the Celtics ahead against an inferior Bulls team. With young wins Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a backcourt of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, and 30 minutes of Horford the Celtics were still equipped to get by a Bulls team that entered Monday with the league’s worst record.

But it didn’t happen. The Bulls were far more aggressive, contested jumpers that Boston wouldn’t, played passing lanes and went after loose balls that the Celtics watched more often than not. Boston took 40 3-pointers even without Irving (and Marcus Morris), and they committed 15 turnovers. It was sloppy throughout, and the Bulls took advantage.

Nikola Mirotic, starting in place of Lauri Markkanen (back), scored 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Kris Dunn was solid again, and the bench scored 30 first-half points that allowed the Bulls to lead by as many as 18 on a team that hadn’t lost a game by double digits all season.

Bobby Portis scored 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, David Nwaba continued his stretch of stellar play with 13 points, six rebounds and a steal, and Jerian Grant chipped in nine assists in 23 minutes off the bench. The Bulls were solid across the board, holding the C's to their lowest point total of the year and shooting 48 percent with 12 3-pointers against the most efficient defense in the league. 

“This is third game in a row now that everybody that’s stepped on the floor has made a positive contribution for the team,” Hoiberg noted.

Those habits are something Fred Hoiberg has seen all season, and his comments sounded more genuine than simple coach-speak. These Bulls players, a majority who are fighting for their spots in the league and their futures, have had the right attitude every night. The talent in the league is the result of a 6-20 record, not the effort.

“Even when we were going through the (10-game) losing streak our guys were coming in and continuing to work. They were very attentive in practice and film sessions,” Hoiberg said. “They kept their head down, kept grinding, and it’s paying off for us with the way these guys are going out every night and competing.

“We’ve come in every day and talked about, win or lose, taking steps in the right direction.”

The Bulls are still headed for the Lottery, and the truth is the majority of these Bulls working every day won’t be on the team when it’s time to contend for titles. But in a season where the Bulls had lost 15 and 16 without much of a direction, a three-game winning streak shows that this team is heading in the direction Hoiberg wants and that better days are coming because of it.