Lauri Markkanen

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.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: Portis-Mirotic combo leading Bulls' charge

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AP

Bulls Talk Podcast: Portis-Mirotic combo leading Bulls' charge

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski and Kendall Gill react to the Bulls' blowout win over the Celtics and the team’s three-game win streak. The guys also break down how the Bobby Portis-Niko Mirotic dynamic has emerged as a devastating combo on the court, and how it impacts rookie Lauri Markkanen. Plus, should fans root for the team to win, or lose? And could Boston possibly have interest in Robin Lopez in a trade?

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

The New York Knicks provided the perfect type of test for the Bulls, in the most imperfect conditions but a test of growth and morale.

It’s certainly a game with its share of warts but seeing the Bulls put together their first winning streak of the season with a nail-biting 104-102 win at the United Center had more successes than failures.

Kristaps Porzingis was staring Lauri Markkanen in the face, finally getting hot and finding a rhythm after struggling early. Once he got the Bulls rookie on his hip, he exploded to the rim for a dunk that gave the Knicks a one-point lead in the third.

“Short, short," Porzingis yelled the next time down as Markkanen gave Porzingis a taste of his own medicine, albeit with a mid-range jumper as opposed to a drive.

By the time Porzingis was done barking, Markkanen was already backpedaling to the other end as his jumper was true.

Passed.

There was Kris Dunn, one night after playing a strong game against the Hornets, trying to put together a second straight performance, having earned the trust of Fred Hoiberg to put the ball in his hands late.

Dunn drove on Knicks guard Courtney Lee and got a foul called—a ticky-tack call but a call—with 2.9 seconds left. Dunn hit both free throws to complete his 17-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound evening.

“It was a design play. Attack him. He was on my hip, and I tried to finish the layup,” Dunn said.

Passed.

The Bulls nearly giving away the game doesn’t make anyone look good in the light, but it’s better to learn in the midst of an “almost” loss than another soul-crushing, spirit-dropping defeat—Hoiberg has had plenty of those that have turned his youthful look into nearly a salt-and-pepper, gruff appearance.

“We need to get a little more movement in the last two minutes there, that’s on me,” Hoiberg said.

Having six players in double figures, including Nikola Mirotic hit five triples for 19 points in his home debut this season, is certainly an eye-catcher for the immediate future and January when the trade market opens up.

“It felt great,” Mirotic said. “I know we’ve had a lot of ups and downs but like I said this team is going in a different direction. There are players who are improving a lot and we’re doing a good job.”

Then there’s the wild card, David Nwaba, streaking down the floor like a wide receiver that could be put to use on Sunday’s at Soldier Field. Hard to measure his value but the energy quotient goes up when he hits the floor.

Three plays in succession gave the Bulls a 100-92 lead that put them in the driver’s seat with two minutes remaining.

On a larger scale, though, it shows the Bulls front office can still mine a diamond in the rough every now and again, as acquisitions like Nwaba often go undersold—which is probably better for this front office given the gaffes in recent memory—but he can overdeliver and do it in flashes.

“I’m gonna give it right to him. That speed, nobody wants to get in front of that,” Dunn said. “It’s like (Russell) Westbrook, you wanna get in front of that? Go ahead. You take a charge, you’re gonna feel it the next morning.”

Nobody dared try, aside from Kyle O’Quinn on a Nwaba dunk attempt, but Nwaba’s 15 points and five rebounds were all impactful.

Passed.

Never mind the Bulls didn’t make it back to Chicago from Charlotte until early Saturday afternoon after some pilot issues, breaking their usual gameday routine while the Knicks were waiting and well-rested.

“It shows you a group that really cares and a group that is going to go out and compete every night regardless of what the circumstances are,” Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg knows he’s in a precarious situation, that the overall objective this season is not winning games. But he can’t have his team laying down for an opponent that jumps on them early and strips the Bulls of their spirit.

His personal wins come in small doses, like not having to take those early timeouts.

“Now we’re doing a good job of going out with the right mentality,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting after it on the defensive end and getting some push in the game.”

The “getting after it” can certainly apply to Markkanen, he of the quick feet, long arms and wide eyes who had his hands full with a player he’ll likely be compared to for fair and unfair reasons in Porzingis. Porzingis has had a steady growth after his draft standing was questioned coming out of Latvia, although the questions about Markkanen were more because watching Arizona play on the west coast is a tougher task for the east coast elite.

As Markkanen shown all year, even through his periodic struggles, he’s shown a willingness to compete and defend his position, never running from his matchup. He stayed with Porzingis and helped harass him into a 10-for-25 shooting night.

“It’s how competitive I am, giving my all, I’m happy with that,” said Markkanen when asked how he judged himself defensively. “If I look in the mirror and said I’ve done everything I can…if they still score, I gotta get back to the gym.”

He smirked when asked if he felt he did everything he could against Porzingis Saturday.

“He got a couple easy ones against me so I’ve gotta learn from those. Most of the time I think I’ve done a decent job.”

He chuckled.

He knows he did a better than decent job and in a season full of scheduled failures the Bulls had a necessary success.