Bulls

Bulls: Mirotic hopes he's turned the corner on inconsistency

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Bulls: Mirotic hopes he's turned the corner on inconsistency

Nikola Mirotic had been getting in some extra work with Fred Hoiberg, but for those who don’t have access to the Advocate Center, he might as well have been on a milk carton with a sign that said “missing in action”.

Going scoreless in one game where production was sorely needed along with combining for 24 points in the other five games before Saturday, it began to appear a sophomore slump was not an outlier.

Then Saturday happened, and the alarm clock went off just in time for Mirotic, who went off for 17 in the Bulls’ 96-83 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday night.

[MORE: Bulls stun Cavaliers, spoil Tyronn Lue's NBA coaching debut]

“Finally, you know? It’s been huge for me,” Mirotic said in the visitor’s locker room Saturday night. “I’ve said before, I’m working on my shots but even with my shots they haven’t been going in. My teammates were finding me. But it’s just one game. Miami is next. I need to play well.”

The frustrating pump fakes, the bricked jumpers kept adding up as Mirotic looked bottled up and the only constant observation that could be said centered around his indecision. Even his breakout game against the Cavaliers can’t be praised too much because nobody knows what’s to come behind it.

And with the Bulls going out west for a grueling trip after their last home game against Miami, no one can predict what’s coming next, not even his coach. Almost a microcosm of this team to date.

“This year against good teams we play great. But we need to change our mentality, we need to play great against everybody,” Mirotic said. “Today we started at the beginning, great physicality, played for each other. The second unit, we played good.”

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For some reason, comfort has been hard to find for Mirotic, and Hoiberg has tried virtually everything to get him going. He’s started at power forward, come off the bench, started at small forward and now, he’s back as a reserve expected to anchor a second unit.

“I don’t know if I’m feeling pressure but I know I can play better and when you’re not doing your job as you’re expected…I need to play better,” Mirotic said. “Today was a different game and I need to keep building. They trust me.”

As Bobby Portis’ production has tailed off and Doug McDermott has disappeared whenever he’s not on the floor with Joakim Noah, Mirotic is the best and last hope of the recent draft picks to make a difference.

Shocking as it is, he’s the most productive and even through this period of play where you hardly noticed he was on the floor, January is Mirotic’s best month of the season — an illustration of the state of affairs under both circumstances.

“When you care as much as Niko does I think you’re gonna put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Hoiberg said. “Our first game against Cleveland Niko led us in scoring with 19 points. Then last game he was terrific.”

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His confidence has been as unpredictable as his play but unlike last season, he’s a necessity and not a luxury, which brings about a different kind of feeling as he hopes the inconsistency is behind him — but who can be sure at this point?

“Right now it’s up and down and I’m trying everyday to do something good,” he said. 

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.