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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."

Three Things to Watch: Bulls look for sixth straight win against Sixers and 'The Process'

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls look for sixth straight win against Sixers and 'The Process'

1. Six straight? The Bulls are on fire. After winning just three times during their first 23 games of the season, the Bulls have won five in a row. That's been thanks to the strong play of Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, the two guys on either end of that infamous preseason punch. The Bulls have been the victors in every game Mirotic has played this season (he returned to action to start the win streak), and the forward has been electric, averaging 20 points a game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Portis has posted a pair of huge scoring games during the win streak — 23 against the Boston Celtics and a career-high 27 against the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday — and he hauled in 12 rebounds last game for his third double-double of the season. The Bulls have already defeated a pair of teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture during this streak. Can they make it six in a row against the Sixers?

2. No Embiid, but Sixers are still a challenge. Philly will be without its best player Monday, with Joel Embiid ruled out of the first game of a back-to-back for the Sixers. Embiid has been awesome this season, averaging 24.1 points per game, one of the top 15 scoring averages in the league, and he's also hauling in 11 rebounds a game. Without him on the floor, the Bulls figure to have a much easier time locking down their sixth straight win. But Embiid isn't the only weapon on this squad. Ben Simmons has been great, too, and the guard is approaching Westbrook-like numbers, nearly averaging a triple-double on the season with 17.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. JJ Redick is averaging 17 points a game, and Robert Covington is averaging 15.1 points a game. So there's no Embiid, but watch out for these Sixers, who are hoping to finally see "The Process" come to fruition.

3. Dunn is fun. Mirotic and Portis are getting a lot of attention for their efforts during the Bulls' win streak, but be sure to throw some love Kris Dunn's way. The Bulls' point guard is averaging 15.8 points a game, 7.8 assists a game and 4.8 rebounds a game during this hot stretch. His numbers are vastly improved this season with significantly more playing time after a poor rookie campaign in Minnesota. Dunn's shooting 43.4 percent from the field this season after shooting 37.7 percent a year ago. And he's shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range this season after shooting 28.8 percent from behind the arc last year.

Where does Lauri Markkanen sit in early race for Rookie of the Year?

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USA TODAY

Where does Lauri Markkanen sit in early race for Rookie of the Year?

The NBA season is just three weeks old, but some rookies have emerged as early candidates for Rookie of the Year, including Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

Mark Schanowski ranked his top five rookies with the regular season just over 10 percent of the way finished. Watch the video in the embedded tweet below to see Schanowski explain his rankings and read on for more information on his top five.

5. Jayson Tatum, Boston

Key stats: 13.6 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 51.7 percent 3-pointers

The No. 3 pick in the draft is in the top five among rookies in a number of categories and is getting plenty of playing time for a championship contender.

Schanowski: "After the Gordon Hayward injury, Tatum will be counted on to play major minutes on one of the Eastern Conference's best teams."

4. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas

Key stats: 13.3 points per game, 4.6 assists per game

Smith has proven to be a bring spot at point guard for a struggling Dallas team despite shooting below 40 percent and having 3.7 turnovers per game so far.

Schanowski: Smith is "showing future All-Star potential with his explosive drives and long-range shooting."

3. Kyle Kuzma, LA Lakers

Key stats: 15.4 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 56.3 percent field goal shooting

Kuzma was taken all the way down at No. 27 in the draft, but he is stealing some of the thunder from fellow Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.

Schanowski: "Right now Kuzma looks like one of the steals of the draft."

2. Lauri Markkanen, Bulls

Key stats: 16.3 points per game, 9 rebounds per game, 37.9 percent 3-pointers

Markkanen is second among rookies in scoring and rebounds while proving to be the type of modern NBA big man with plenty of shooting range.

Schanowski: "Markkanen is showing a lot of versatily on offense and he's a better rebounder than advertised."

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia

Key stats: 18 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, 8.2 assists per game

Simmons was the No. 1 pick last year, but was out with an injury the whole season. He is making his mark as a rookie this year with two triple-doubles already and leads rookies in scoring, rebounds and assists. If he comes close to maintaining this production, he will be a lock for Rookie of the Year.

Schanowski: "Ben Simmons is definitely proving to be worth the one-year wait in Philadelphia... He's looking like a more talented version of Lamar Odom."