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.”