Nikola Mirotic on the mend as Bulls gear up for final stretch


Nikola Mirotic on the mend as Bulls gear up for final stretch

Nikola Mirotic knew something was wrong when, after an additional night in the hospital following his appendectomy last month, he returned home with a fever and considerable pain in his stomach.

So the next day the Bulls forward returned to Rush Medical Center, where doctors discovered a hematoma in his stomach that required a second surgery. Mirotic spent a week in the hospital recovering, saying at Wednesday's practice he had lost 18 pounds since then, and has just now begun rehabilitation with hopes of getting back to the court as soon as possible.

"It was not really (a) good experience. All I had after the first surgery, I went home I get back I had another one, but it's always try to stay positive. You never know the reason why it's good for this to happen, but it's true I missed a lot of my guys and I was watching all the games and it's been hard, especially the beginning of my recovery."

Mirotic has been working in the pool and been doing light activity on a stationary bike and in the weight room. There's still no timetable for his return, as Fred Hoiberg alluded to at practice Tuesday. But Mirotic, who played in 81 games as a rookie last season, said he's confident in his body and said he could resume basketball activity in two to three weeks. He admitted that both sides of his stomach and back are still sore, which doctors told him was normal. Mirotic's doctor also told him it was the first complication with an appendectomy he had seen in his 30 years.

"I don't know when the time, but of course the one thing I know, I'm going do the best job I can to try to get on the floor as soon and help my teammates. We will see," he said. "It's each day see how it's going to progress, but hopefully it's going to be soon."

[SPORTSTALK LIVE: Can the banged-up Bulls turn things around?]

Though Mirotic has struggled much of his sophomore season in Chicago, his absence has been noticeable. The Bulls, already down Joakim Noah (shoulder) and later Jimmy Butler (knee), begin their final 30 games of the regular season shorthanded, especially in the frontcourt. Since Mirotic's last game, Jan. 25 against Miami, the Bulls have gone 2-6 with a net rating of -8.6, second worst in the league behind Phoenix (-13.9). Their rebounding has taken a substantial hit, too, as their rebound percentage of 47.5 percent is fifth worst in the league in that span.

But not all the Bulls' injury news was bad. Mike Dunleavy will see an uptick in minutes following the Bulls' week-long All-Star break. Hoiberg said the veteran sharpshooter looked good and made it through the last two days of practice - which included game officials - and likely will get the start on LeBron James tomorrow night in Cleveland; Dunleavy started the Bulls' final two games before the break, in Charlotte and against Atlanta.

The hope is that Dunleavy's increased minutes will help give some stability to a Bulls lineup that has rotated players in and out as injuries have occurred. The Bulls won't get to ease in to the home stretch of their schedule, facing the top two seeds in the East on consecutive nights. The Bulls are looking to break out of a funk that's seen them lose 13 of 18 since they won six straight in early January

"We need to get confident. That's something that we've lacked, especially on the road trip when we couldn't close out games that we had great chances of winning," he said. "So it's giving ourselves an opportunity and closing them out and gaining that confidence that's so important if you want to go on a run in this league.

"The thing about our conference, about the East, if you do go on a run you can make a jump in the hurry. And that's what we've got to be focused on. Past is the past, gotta go out and prepare and hopefully give ourselves a chance to win every game."

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”