If there was anybody who needed a bounce back game in the worst way, Nikola Mirotic was the obvious candidate running in a one-person race.
And the surprise starter—yes, the guy who started all year was a surprise starter at the last second, benefitted most from Joakim Noah’s unexpected absence in the Bulls’ 111-88 win over the perpetually-rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center Monday night.
Noah was slated to start at center, as announced by the team minutes before tipoff, before his left knee flared up and Mirotic returned back to the place he started and broke out of his mini-slump to score 20, including three 3-pointers, while adding 10 rebounds in 29 minutes.
“It was tough for me the last couple games, last three games, playing without confidence the last game [against Minnesota], getting in trouble with fouls,” Mirotic said. “But I knew that I would be back soon with my offense. The last couple days, I was staying after practice to get my shots in, trying to get my confidence back, and [Monday] was the perfect day to get it back.”
Playing against a 76ers team that was already without Nerlens Noel, Robert Covington and Tony Wroten, the Bulls made quick work after a competitive first half where the home team surprisingly made it a game and tested Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg’s belief about his team’s ability to play a full 48 minutes—particularly against lesser competition.
“The one thing we talked about is how competitive they’ve been and how hard they play,” Hoiberg said. “Noel is a difference maker with his ability to protect the rim and his energy. We had to play hard, it was evident by that run. I was glad to see we stopped that and got the momentum back on our side.”
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After leading by 15 midway through the first quarter, 31-16, the Bulls allowed the 76ers to take a brief lead before halftime and then quickly restored order. The 76er reserves began to chip away as the Bulls had their usual lull, falling behind 40-37 after a 24-6 run fueled more by energy than anything else.
But Mirotic finally began to hit a few jumpers to start the third, including a couple triples, to give the Bulls a little breathing room as the 76ers began to predictably, regress to the mean.
That dreaded pump fake which resulted in three free throws began to break him from his lethargy, which couldn’t have come quicker for the Bulls. Doug McDermott added a rare four-point play and they were back off and running.
Mirotic scored 12 in the third, officially breaking out his slump.
“He stuck with it, especially after missing a couple early,” Hoiberg said. “He even missed a couple free throws but it was great tosee that ball go through the basket. That’s what shooters need,. To see that thing go in and take the lid off. Hopefully he can take off from here.”
A complete performance wasn’t necessary, especially as the 76ers shot 35 percent from the field and 18 from three-point range, and turned the ball over 17 times for 21 Bulls points.
Chicago native Jahlil Okafor actually outscored Mirotic in the period, scoring 14 on six of nine shooting, helping soothe an otherwise subpar shooting night although he achieved his first double-double with 21 and 15 rebounds, although he took 25 shots to get there.
Derrick Rose scored 12 with seven assists and five rebounds, while Pau Gasol scored 16 with nine rebounds and six blocked shots, as all their damage was done in the first three quarters of play.
McDermott scored seven in the fourth while reserve guard E’Twaun Moore scored nine to put things away and give the starters a breather with four days between games, completing a seven-game in 11-day stretch.