Money Mirotic: It’s becoming a running joke, the Bulls going undefeated with Nikola Mirotic back in the starting five.
But it’s tough to argue with the evidence in the Bulls’ nail-biting 103-100 win over the Utah Jazz.
The entire Mirotic menu was on display, from the step-back fadeaway jumpers to the 3-pointers in transition to the circus no-look layups. At the end of 48 minutes, he’d done more than his share of heavy lifting with 29 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes, torching Derrick Favors and Jonas Jerebko along the way.
He’s playing free and loose, the way he was expected to before his unfortunate confrontation with Bobby Portis occurred two days before the start of the season.
“Right now, Niko has brought a confidence to this team. Whether he’s come off the bench or started, he’s gotten off to great starts,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s doing a good job on the defensive end. He understands our coverage schemes. When you have guys who can make adjustments on the fly, it certainly helps your team.”
Averaging 19.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in his four-game return, Mirotic is shooting 57 percent and 52 percent from 3-point range. When he talked openly about reclaiming the power forward spot, the initial reaction was snickering—it didn’t seem likely or in the Bulls’ best interest for something like that to happen.
Now, it’s still not in the Bulls’ best interest, nor is it likely with Lauri Markkanen still the future and the present, but you can see where Mirotic’s confidence came from.
“The work I did this summer, getting stronger in my legs,” Mirotic said. “I’m heavier. It sounds crazy but I was 260. I lost a little bit but I felt the difference in how I felt my first three years.”
“I think you guys thought I was joking but I was very serious. I thought we could be 4-0. We have to keep building on this, we have tough games but we have more chances now.”
He’s adding diversity to the Bulls’ offense now, as he knows where to be in Hoiberg’s offense and doesn’t always have to drift as much. The Bulls needed his scoring and experience, so he’s filled in the necessary blanks.
“I’m the same one I was the first day, as a teammate,” Mirotic said. “Always supportive but I knew the moment I was coming, it wasn’t good moments so I had to step up. And I stepped up on the court, playing my game, being aggressive.”
Dunn: It wasn’t a banner game for Kris Dunn. He was missing layups even though he was in the paint with ease, and gambling a little bit too much against former teammate Ricky Rubio.
But this Kris Dunn is different than the kid who was looking over his shoulder a month ago and the Bulls have the utmost confidence in him, stemming from their win over the Knicks where Dunn was called to have the ball in his hands late.
Instant replay of sorts to Wednesday, where Dunn hit two big jumpers late to keep the Jazz at bay.
Just four of 14 before he hit a baseline jumper, he had no hesitation. And then with the shot clock running down, another jumper with 22 seconds left in the game to give the Bulls a 100-96 lead.
Nobody expected this growth to be this rapid, averaging 16 points with 7.6 assists and six rebounds in his last five games.
“I imagined the ball being in my hands. But I don’t know if I would’ve shot the jumper,” Dunn admitted. “Coach keeps working with me every day on my jump shot, tells me to keep believing, keep staying aggressive.”
Dunn also found Denzel Valentine on a nice cut for a layup with 1:54 left and repeatedly located Robin Lopez in the paint after drawing the attention of Rudy Gobert.
Had Lopez made a few more attempts, it would’ve been a double-double and a better stat line but the growth should be noted nonetheless. He only turned it over two times and despite his gambling on his former teammate Rubio, he was still bringing the effort defensively.
“I’m in a better space,” Dunn said. “I love these guys. It’s a good positive energy on this team. We’re all trying to get better, we play off each other. We have great chemistry on the court.”
Donovan Mitchell, very real: How Mitchell fell to 13th in the draft will be the stuff of lore in the very near future as Mitchell was the most impressive player on the floor for either side Wednesday. His explosiveness and ease in which he got to the lane to score his game-high 32 points was beyond impressive.
The way Mitchell used the pick-and-roll, patiently approaching the screener then exploding away from the defender, is stuff that harkens back to a young Dwyane Wade—and this scribe isn’t one for hyperbole.
“He’s a monster. He can finish, he can shoot,” Hoiberg said. “The thing he’s doing an unbelievable job of is his playmaking. His ability to play out of pick and roll and make the right play. High-flyer, absolute stud. That kid is gonna be a big time player.”
It’s amazing he only gets to the foul line three times a game, the way he absorbs and seeks out contact, but at 215 pounds he can dish out as much as he takes. Dunn tried to misdirect Mitchell off screens late as the Bulls switched up their coverages, but Mitchell still found ways to be effective.
Hitting 15 of his 26 shots, including 22 in the second half as he emerged from being passive to aggressive, he’ll be an All-Star and from this seat, a superstar in no time at all.
Aside from Ben Simmons, you’d be hard-pressed to take a rookie over Mitchell. The New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons have to be kicking themselves over not taking Mitchell.
He’s that good.
Lauri Markkanen: Markkanen was supposed to be on the floor after missing Monday’s game with back spasms, but was a late scratch.
Hoiberg said in the morning shootaround and in his pregame availability Markkanen was on track to play and start, so it was a bit of a surprise to see someone else’s name at power forward.
But as the Bulls have routinely stated at the start of the season, this is a long play with Markkanen—and having Mirotic and Bobby Portis man that position in the meantime isn’t such a bad thing.
“He went out there for his workout and he just wasn’t sure,” Hoiberg said. “He still has soreness and stiffness in that back, and we’re just looking at this long term. We’re taking a cautious approach with Lauri and the smart thing was to leave him out tonight.”