There was one, then before you knew it Nikola Mirotic made a series of game-changing plays for the Bulls, and the surprising part was just one came on the offensive end.
A shocking 35-foot 3-pointer he took almost out of resignation when Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony dared him to do something with it from that far out, as the momentum was careening away from the Knicks midway through the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, literally. You look at my face and I said, ‘oh s***,’” said Jimmy Butler when asked if he was surprised when Mirotic launched the long triple with 10 seconds on the shot clock. “Not even joking I was like damn. He was feeling it, I like that Niko.”
Mirotic’s slump-busting four triples certainly got the Bulls off to a hot start to 2016, as well as Doug McDermott’s consecutive triples that sent the United Center into a frenzy but it was Mirotic’s defense during the decisive 19-4 run that sealed the Bulls’ 108-81 win over the Knicks Friday night.
Mirotic blocked an Anthony layup from behind, snatching a rebound and got his hands on some steals that got the Bulls off and running, playing a huge part in an energetic win that vaults the Bulls to 19-12.
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Surprisingly, the Bulls held the Knicks to just eight points in the fourth quarter, outscoring them by 23 when the Knicks looked to be stalking the Bulls in the middle two quarters.
McDermott himself outscored the Knicks in the fourth with 11, while Mirotic, the second-year struggling forward scored 17 with seven assists and five rebounds.
“He’s had a few like this lately. He had a very efficient night,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, referring to Mirotic’s eight shot attempts and wryly joking about the long triple attempt. “He rebounded the heck out of the ball. It wasn’t just offense for Niko tonight, I thought he played a complete game.”
Mirotic’s energy was the surprise while Bobby Portis’ was the constant, as he cemented his case for not just a spot in the rotation but consistent minutes when Joakim Noah returns from his shoulder injury.
Portis outdueled fellow rookie Kristaps Porzingis, with 16 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes. Porzingis scored nine with nine rebounds in 28 minutes but missed 10 of his 14 shot attempts.
“Absolutely. We’re gonna continue to find minutes for Bobby, no doubt about it,” Hoiberg said. “He’s playing too well. He plays with a toughness and a swagger. He’s not gonna back down from anyone.”
The energy that had been lacking through the early part of the season was found on the bench with Portis, which actually overshadows his adeptness at picking up pro concepts and mastering the offense while being aggressive with his shot opportunities.
“You gotta stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Portis said. “It’s something my coaches told me growing up. Every day I came to work and worked as hard as I can. It started paying off. Everything is in God’s hands. It wasn’t my time. I had to work my way up.”
Now Portis has made Hoiberg’s job even more difficult because of the time he’s earned and the admiration he’s garnered from his teammates.
“Every basketball game hypes me up. I love the game of basketball,” he said simply.
Butler led the Bulls with 23 points, six assists and four rebounds in 34 minutes, helping hold Anthony to 20 off eight of 18 shooting, as Derrick Rose sat out his second straight game with right hamstring soreness, a cautious measure by the Bulls that at one point seemed to lead to old bad habits.
The inconsistencies reappeared shortly after the Bulls took a rousing 11-0 lead, holding the Knicks to misses on their first nine shots. It ballooned to 17 before the Bulls began letting up with their energy and crispness offensively, translating to the defensive end.
“In the first half our second group struggled a bit, but then we got off to a good lead in the 2nd half,” Hoiberg said.
After all, a team can survive off solid helpings from Mirotic and his outside shooting but for so long, as he played his best stretch of basketball in a long while, seemingly in the first seven minutes.
Mirotic was definitive, aggressive and anything but bashful, abandoning the annoying pump-fake and hitting three triples in the first few minutes as the absence of Rose was barely felt.
It didn’t last long as the Knicks methodically worked themselves back into the contest. Anthony scored 11 in the first half and while he was the only Knick in double-figures, the wealth was spread.
Jose Calderon was effective getting into the paint and hit a pair of triples to make it a manageable six-point game at the half.
But despite the Knicks making their runs in the second and third, the Bulls made it a laugher in the final period, putting some distance between themselves and Knicks—as well as themselves and controversy.