Mirotic and Portis' energy starts Bulls' 2016 off on the right foot


Mirotic and Portis' energy starts Bulls' 2016 off on the right foot

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.

Challenge accepted.

“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.

[SHOP: Buy a Bobby Portis jersey]

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.”

[WATCH: Portis says coming to Bulls is 'best thing to ever happen to him]

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.

[MORE: Butler battling through thigh injury]

“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.

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?


Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:

Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about leaving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.