The Bulls are playing hard, and playing together

What more does the Bulls' five-game win streak mean?

This Bulls five-game winning streak has been more than an aberration, more than a curiosity with the seemingly seamless teamwork of Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, even more than the relief from losing 10 straight games. Perhaps hiding in plain sight has been the Bulls transition to the modern NBA.

It's been the harmony of big men Mirotic and Portis playing sweet string music shooting three pointers and taking advantage of mismatches from the common switching on defense, the lanes widening for driving as a result of the versatility of the big guys, free throws increasing along with layups, aggressive perimeter defense with the likes of Kris Dunn and David Nwaba.

Are the Bulls closer than we think?

Too soon to say as it's still an 8-20 record for the Bulls Monday as they host the 14-14 Philadelphia 76ers without star center Joel Embiid, who is employing the latest NBA euphemism for rest of "load management." The commissioner said players won't rest as much this season, so teams simply made up new canards.

Too bad as Embiid is one of the most compelling young figures in this modern NBA.

And lately the Bulls have been stating their own case.

Rookie Lauri Markkanen remains questionable and could miss a third consecutive game with back spasms. But it's hardly been noticed with the play lately of early season combatants Portis and Mirotic.

Bobby Portis #5 of the Chicago Bulls goes to the basket against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 15, 2017 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE

The twin 6-10ers suddenly with their shooting and fiercer inside play, recognition and alacrity have helped produce the vision Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has explained if not produced with a swifter, open game. With a pair of near seven footers able to make threes like they have, both shooting at least 50 percent the last five games, the previously packed in interior defenses have had to spread out.

Thus the lanes have opened for driving, and Dunn has taken advantage with nearly triple the amount of free throws the last three games.

"It does open it for our guards, with those two with their ability to spread the floor, force the defense to play different ways," Hoiberg said after Friday's win in Milwaukee. "They (defense) switched and we were able to get it down low on a couple of occasions and Kris had a couple of big plays driving to the basket."

That was a pivotal three-point play for Dunn that preceded Mirotic's step out three on a pass from Dunn off slick penetration and then Mirotic's slashing three-point play off a corner pass from Justin Holiday.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 15, 2017 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"Just recognition," agreed Mirotic. "Kris drove and got two guys on him and he found me wide open. It was a good look. After that we had a mismatch with Bobby in the low post. I tried to flash. That's the moment we are learning as a group, finding each other, finding the right guy, talking the right play. It's not me, its the guys who find me. Sometimes they (defenders) are very confused when we are both (on the floor) because Bobby is popping and I am going to the basket. I am popping also. The good thing now when they are switching with us, we are going to the low post and finding each other, playing good basketball, smart basketball and finding the way to make good plays."

While a five-game win streak after 10 straight losses is extraordinary, it's still just five games. But there have been, nonetheless, impressive indications that it isn't a fluke and perhaps the Bulls have more talent on their roster than even they believed.

Mirotic was advertised as perhaps a modern NBA star with his size, agility and stretch shooting. Portis wasn't considered quite the high talent ceiling, but with excellent abilities for this era. Then you mix in a guard like Dunn with the long arms for defense, the quick reactions and strength.

Mirotic is averaging 20 points and 6.2 rebounds in his return, all wins. He's shooting 53.8 percent overall. In that stretch, Portis is averaging 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting almost 62 percent. Dunn is averaging 15.8 points and 7.8 assists, his free throw attempts up to about four per game from almost 1.5.

Robin Lopez #42 of the Chicago Bulls goes to the basket against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 15, 2017 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Even Robin Lopez has benefited, averaging 13.5 points for the season, by far the best of his career, and 14.2 per game in the streak as defenses cannot sit inside as they'd done previously against the Bulls.

You can make a case for every one of the Bulls starters when Nwaba is starting as a candidate for league Most Improved Player. And probably Portis, as well.

Perhaps more significant than the individual progress has been the look and impact on the team

The Bulls are not settling for so many of those quick threes that inevitably lead to defensive breakdowns. They were averaging about 31 threes per game. Lately in the streak, its been about 22. What observers miss about a team like champion Golden State is they seek out the drive and the layup before the three. As Houston coach Mike D'Antoni says, the ball finds energy. That's produced openings.

The Bulls assists per game are up about two in this streak, but, more significantly, free throw attempts are up almost 60 percent from about 16 to 25.

David Nwaba #11 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 15, 2017 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It's what you see: Players driving and getting penetration, which moves the defense and opens the outside. Dribble handoffs are much more effective when someone is taking the ball to the basket. Then there's player replacement from side to side with several players able to make plays, like Holiday, Denzel Valentine and David Nwaba. Not Mirotic, who just got his first assist in his fifth game back. For now he's mostly passing to guys who miss shots.

It's no secret, if not much spoken about, what was going on previously, especially last season.

The middle was clogged and particularly Dwyane Wade in, understandably, trying to retain his career and justify his salary, was holding the ball, hanging in the lane for shots. Defenses declined to follow him outside even after he got off to a good start shooting threes. Same with Rajon Rondo. Defenses sat in the paint. No more.

The Bulls are 29th on the season in points in the paint at under 40 per game. These last five, they're in the top 10 at almost 48 per game. Mirotic's return clearly has opened the floor and seemingly liberated Portis.

With the resulting lack of movement and big men anchored outside, it was much easier to defend. Not so lately with Portis playing more center behind Lopez and in that spacing tandem with Mirotic. And that's without Markkanen, who was the best three-point shooter early in the season.

Teams have played off Dunn, but his shot has improved. Lately it hasn't been good from three, though sufficient for the season. More importantly, he's collapsed the defense with his driving and finishing.

Of course, everything looks better with wins. If some of those with the poor free throw shooting (66 percent) had been close losses, perhaps the analysis wouldn't have been so sanguine.

But the Bulls may just have found something to begin adding to instead of rebuilding.

"Everyone knowing their roles," explained Portis. "We have a whole new team starting the season off, but everything takes time for everybody to know their roles. That's been big for us. Everyone has been playing hard and playing together."

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