Nikola Mirotic signaling to his teammates during a game against the Boston Celtics.

The New Nikola Mirotic

The Bulls are 3-0 since Mirotic has returned

The Bulls Wednesday against the Utah Jazz are playing for a four-game winning streak, which would match their longest in two years. Four straight was the most last season. So that's different. Rookie Lauri Markkanen remains questionable for Wednesday's game with back spasms. He is the team's leading scorer and could be only the third rookie after Michael Jordan and Elton Brand to lead the team in scoring. That's different. Kris Dunn in December is becoming a triple threat averaging 14.7 points, 7.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds, making a case to be the first holdover point guard since Derrick Rose. That's different.

But what's really different with this Bulls team is the 6-10 guy from Montenegro who shoots threes just behind the three-point line, who goes to the basket without his arms waving and flailing and flopping around like a fish that jumped out of the bowl, who overplays on defense, fronting, quartering and pushing opponents off the block, who when he gets a smaller guy on a switch immediately ducks into the lane to take a short shot.

"I put in a lot of work this summer getting stronger, put 20 pounds on my body," said Nikola Mirotic. "Working my game in the post, too. I knew that was going to be an area I had to improve because there is a lot of sweet cheese there; when I go down I need be available to make those shots."

It's suddenly the sweet game the Bulls envisioned.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls drives the ball against the Boston Celtics at the United Center on December 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Mirotic's reference was to one of the descriptive catch phrases of animated Bulls broadcaster Stacey King. King likes to yell "Free cheese" when a player has a mismatch with a smaller player inside. I believe it's a reference to the old government program to distribute cheese to needy people during the Reagan administration from commodity subsidies.

Nico Suave with the hot sauce?

It also is an indication that Mirotic was watching a lot of Bulls games during his 23-game recovery from being punched in the face by Bobby Portis in preseason.

"It wasn't too much fun," Mirotic acknowledged. "Seeing those 23 games from home—and last couple from bench—I was trying to see how to make an impact on the team, what they needed to be better."

He apparently watched carefully.

You can see our pace is much better, making a lot of shots, unselfish, trying to find the guys. Just thinking to be positive. I am back now and I want to enjoy playing basketball; that's all I want.

Nikola Mirotic

The Bulls are 3-0 since Mirotic has returned, which he's playfully continued to credit to his presence. He's also joked about "March Niko," his habit during his three seasons of playing his best in March, even leading the league in fourth quarter scoring in March of his rookie season.

But there's no joking about this completely new Mirotic, confident, unhesitating, dynamic, physical.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls drives past Semi Ojeleye #37 of the Boston Celtics on his way to a game-high 24 points at the United Center on December 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Mirotic has led the Bulls in scoring the last two games, Monday in the impressive victory over the Celtics with 24 points. He's eight of 15 on threes the last two games. So much for that timing and rush stuff we hear about so much when players are out a long time.

Mirotic is averaging 16.3 points and shooting 55 percent in 22 minutes per game.

"I can tell you I am not 100 percent back yet, maybe 85, 90 percent because I am still feeling my strength is not back, my condition," said Mirotic. "I am working on that to improve; first game 15 minutes then 20 and now 30. Playing more my strength will be back and I will be available to keep playing."

Those are impressive statistics and results for a player who it was rumored might not even want to report back, or play with Portis or be in the same room with him or anyone else.

But that's been far from the facts with a jocular, buoyant Mirotic joking with reporters and teammates, smiling, laughing, exchanging skin, as it were, with Portis among others.

But if that's a surprise to some, the larger shock is seeing this player who has been the anti-Niko.

This guy takes smart, quick shots, ready to catch and shoot, not hesitating. This guy takes a straight line to the basket, looking for the rim and not the ref. This guy posts up smaller players and calls for the ball, seals with his extra weight and scores easily.

This guy also wears No. 44, but has shown more Gervin than Gondrezick.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the New York Knicks on December 9, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

"Trying to make it simple," said Mirotic. "I think last year I did not have some part of the season a good selection of shots; maybe too far from the three-point line. But now (I am) feeling very confident with what I did this summer, finishing stronger, going to the post, rebounding the ball. Making my job easier because sometimes when I am not making those three-point shots I am going to go to the post and I'm going to do some fast breaks and make it simple."

So what took so long?

That's actually somewhat unfair since Mirotic is just 26, a two-time best young player in Europe. But he's never truly had a full season in the NBA. As a rookie in Tom Thibodeau's contentious final season as coach, Mirotic grew into one of the best young players in the league late in the season and Rookie of the Year runner-up, though Thibodeau basically forgot about him in the playoffs.

Then his first season under coach Fred Hoiberg in 2015-16, Mirotic was alternating the starting job with Taj Gibson. But then he was struck with appendicitis in February and never quite got right until late March when he averaged 19 points the last nine games and the team missed the playoffs.

DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings Battles for a rebound between Nikola Mirotic #44 and Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on March 21, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.

Then last season he was projected as a starter, but he was outplayed early by Gibson pushing hard in a contract season. Mirotic was even dropped from the rotation so Joffrey Lauvergne could have a tryout until, again, a March revival with a stretch of eight games in which he scored more than 20 points in five.

He and the Bulls could not agree on a contract extension in the summer. He was about to sign a qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent after this season when he agreed to a two-year deal at about $25 million with the second season a team option. He appeared lined up to start this season when he and Portis clashed and it appeared like his Bulls career was over.

And then Friday appeared New Niko. Is it a tease or a testament?

"Learning," Mirotic explained surrounded by five rows deep of media for the second straight game late Monday night. "All a learning process being in the NBA.

"I was trying to get fouls and they didn't call (for) me last year," Mirotic acknowledged of his obvious self evaluation since last season. "Now it's, ‘I'm not going to go for the foul, I am going to make a basket.' It is a huge difference. I am going with the confidence and so far it's been good.

"It's the team, but I can tell you I am finding (my) way and the team is finding a way to win," said Mirotic. "You can see our pace is much better, making a lot of shots, unselfish, trying to find the guys. Just thinking to be positive. I am back now and I want to enjoy playing basketball; that's all I want."

That's not different.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls celebrates after a shot at the United Center on December 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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