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Bulls in thick of East chase thanks to Mirotic's big month

Chicago is at last reaping the benefits of Nikola Mirotic's versatility

POSTED: Mar 19, 2015 11:22 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Rookie Nikola Mirotic leads the Bulls in fourth-quarter scoring and rebounding in March.

— In the Chicago Bulls' perfect world, where no basketball injury rises above the level of jammed finger, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson never would have gotten hurt, Joakim Noah wouldn't be on a minutes leash ... and Nikola Mirotic might be Doug McDermott.

Mirotic, the rookie forward from Montenegro, has been the bearded lining of the Bulls' otherwise dark cloud lately. His emergence this month has eased the loss of Rose, Butler and Gibson, kept the team afloat (4-6 in March) and elevated the versatile and much-anticipated import's arrival from official to beneficial.

Playing like this is just a small piece of my basketball.

– Chicago Bulls rookie forward Nikola Mirotic

From October through February, Mirotic had shown flashes of the guy for whom Chicago and its fans had been waiting since the 2011 Draft. Over the past 10 games, though, the Bulls' needs and his preparedness have turned such glimpses into an every-night occurrence, thrusting Mirotic not into any favorite's role but at least into the conversations for the Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year Awards.

In March, Mirotic has averaged 20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 32.1 minutes, his production synched up precisely to Gibson's latest sitdown with a sprained ankle. He has scored 20 points or more five times this month, after doing that just twice from October through February. Of the 13 games in 2014-15 in which Mirotic has logged at least 30 minutes, eight have come this month.

Was Mirotic's wonderfulness planted there on the Bulls' bench all along? Or did his development get fast-tracked because coach Tom Thibodeau's rotation had been so riddled with absences? As much as people want every rookie to develop as quickly as possible -- McDermott being the latest for Chicago, deep into a season of injury and inconsistency for the lottery pick from Creighton -- the Bulls were a team chasing a title, built with superior, proven big men.

Mirotic, the player for whom Chicago waited, had to do some waiting of his own.

"With four bigs, and three of those guys being Jo, Taj and Pau [Gasol], you're like, over a course of a game -- as good as he is -- 'How does he even get in there?' " said Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy. "And now we've had some injuries and he's been able to shine. He's a big-time player. He's a really unique animal. And we're fortunate to have him."

Mirotic, 24, has been the Bulls' most effective closer during the stretch. With Rose absent from that most natural role, with Butler unable to step in as 1A, Mirotic has led Chicago through fourth quarters in March, averaging 10.0 points and 2.7 rebounds. He's getting to the foul line an average of 4.1 times and making 87.8 percent of those.

He's been a rare combination 3-point deep threat, low-post possibilities and open-court aggressiveness, all in an affable, unassuming package. Mirotic is deceptively quick with a lethal first step. His defense needs work, so much that it's been bad mojo for the Bulls when he's on that end next to Gasol. His shooting form looks knock-wristed, the way he holds and releases the ball, yet Chicago generally is happy where it lands.

Mirotic had five points and four rebounds in 12:36 of the first half against Indiana Wednesday, then kicked it to 20 points and five boards in 18:05 of the second. The Pacers have the league's top scoring bench (41.6 ppg) but Mirotic, with 10 points in the fourth quarter, matched eight Indiana subs combined.

He's a big-time player. He's a really unique animal. And we're fortunate to have him.

– Chicago Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy, on Nikola Mirotic

"He's spectacular," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Not just in the second half, but he was giving us a lot of problems. Coach Thibs does a good job of using him in different ways, putting him in situations that are unique for power forwards to guard. He's a threat at the 3-point line, great off the bounce and great with his cutting game, so he's a heck of a weapon off the bench."

Said Indian veteran David West, in no mood to compliment afterward: "He plays a lot like a wing."

That's the tricky part, or at least what might be, if the injured Bulls -- particularly Gibson -- return on time and ready to slip into old roles. Mirotic has played well next to the Gibson, who previously had staked out the team's sixth-man spot, and he's been too good to put completely back into a box. But the minutes he's been getting now likely would get sliced.

Nice Recovery

Nikola Mirotic looses the dribble on the drive, recovers and makes the mid-air wrap-around feed to Pau Gasol for the highlight finish.

"I'm not worried about that," Mirotic said late Wednesday. "I want that Taj [returns] because we need him. For me, always, the most important is the team. ... My role? I don't know. I've said it for 10 minutes [to reporters postgame], I don't care. When I'm on the court, I'm trying to play good defense, good offense, trying to help my team. So I'm really not worried about minutes. I'm going through a good moment where I'm playing more. Just stay focused. The team right now is playing well.

"Playing like this is just a small piece of my basketball."

Frankly, Mirotic might the least surprised of anyone by his recent contributions. He knew he would be lacking defensively and he said Wednesday the number of games, that wear and tear from four in five nights, took him by surprise. But even with numbers more meager in his Euroleague games, Mirotic said he never worried about succeeding offensively in the NBA.

Now he's brimming with confidence and Thibodeau is trusting him enough to use him at small forward, teaming him with Gasol and Noah.

"I'm trying to play different," Mirotic said. "Not just shooting the ball. Trying to share the ball, try to play pick-and-rolls. We're running a lot of plays for me. So I'm really going through a beautiful moment. "

Kia Nominee: Nikola Mirotic

The Bulls' Nikola Mirotic is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

He added: "Just believe -- if they make some plays for you, you're forced to say, 'OK, they believe in me. I believe in myself too. I'm gonna make these shots.' Right now I'm making these shots in the fourth quarter. And I'm really, really happy. Because it's important. Maybe it doesn't happen always with rookies."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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