First games in the NBA can usually be breeding ground for overarching generalizations that won’t hold water over the course of 82 games, so Fred Hoiberg moving Nikola Mirotic to the starting five in place of Joakim Noah could very well come back to haunt him.
But the logic of having the offensive-minded Mirotic play with Pau Gasol and placing Noah with the energetic Taj Gibson on the second unit paid dividends in their first test, a 97-95 win over the rival Cleveland Cavaliers.
Noah bumped knees with Cavs forward Tristan Thompson in the fourth quarter, suffering a left knee contusion that prevented Hoiberg from re-inserting him later in the game for defensive purposes.
“I tried to put him back in, but the trainer wouldn’t let me,” Hoiberg said. Noah’s status for Wednesday’s game in Brooklyn will be evaluated in the morning.
Up until that point, Noah had been a havoc on the boards with nine in 15 minutes, while Gibson (10 rebounds) used all six of his fouls judiciously in 22 minutes, the last nailing LeBron James with an elbow to the face on a box-out of a free throw in the fourth quarter.
Better James than a teammate he sent to surgery with an accidental elbow on the first day of training camp, it should be said. Gibson also blocked a Kevin Love corner triple in the third, leading to a wing jumper of his own that helped trigger a run that built a double-digit lead.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Noah said of his pairing with Gibson while reporters mobbed around the locker of a teammate who scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 25 minutes, Mirotic.
Mirotic started the Bulls off early with 11 in the first and went quiet for quite a while until midway through the fourth, when his three-point play helped stabilize matters after the Cavaliers took a brief lead.
And Mirotic took a brief tumble into press row near courtside after being hit by Thompson after his inside move bounced in the basket but emerged unscathed.
“Niko was great,” Hoiberg said. “Not only with his shots but he battled aggressively. He also battled very strongly on the defensive end, and that’s going to allow us to play him at power forward.”
Being matched up against Love, a tough rebounder but used in similar ways to Mirotic, as a floor stretcher for James, didn’t start off with the best of scenarios as Love discarded Mirotic on the first play of the game to get an easy dunk.
But he rebounded to hit three of four triples and wasn’t as much of a liability for more than spots on the evening.
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“It’s a good start. I made some threes tonight, and I really feel comfortable shooting threes,” Mirotic said. “The good thing is my teammates are looking for me. A couple of times I was shooting alone, so it’s great.
“My goal this year is defense. I need to show the people that I can really play defense. That’s my goal. Offensively, sometimes you can miss, sometimes you can score, but my goal is playing good defense.”
A bruiser isn’t a word that will be used to describe Mirotic’s play, but making himself serviceable on that end will keep him on the floor, especially if Gasol can repeat performances like his six-block showing, the last of which came with 3.6 seconds left on James.
It overshadowed the fact Gasol didn’t score until 9:36 left in the third quarter for his only basket. Such nights usually would spell disaster for the Bulls, but for one night, at least, they survived against a quality opponent.
“It’s gonna be different every night,” Hoiberg said. “I liked how Niko and Pau played together. There was times when Niko and Taj were out there together. Then Bobby (Portis), he’s gonna play some key minutes for us too.”