Bulls find rhythm against the Jazz, 103-100
After a 10-game losing streak, they've now won four straight.
Break up the Bulls? I know, we thought they did already.
Apparently not yet as the Bulls Wednesday matched their longest winning streak in two years, a fourth consecutive victory and against yet another playoff contender with a 103-100 victory over the Utah Jazz.
It was music to the ears of the Bulls, especially feeling the beat with these Jazz.
It's a good, positive energy on this team. We are all trying to improve. We are all trying to get better. We play off each other. We are doing a good job right now. We have a great chemistry on the court.
That being the same Jazz team that beat the Bulls by 30 points last month. That also being the No-Niko Bulls. For it was Nikola Mirotic in his fourth game back from his preseason fight knockdown with team highs of 29 points and nine rebounds, including a game saving third quarter run off 11 consecutive points and 13 of 14 after the Jazz had taken its biggest lead of the game at 67-60.
"I'm playing with a lot of confidence," Mirotic said. "Some of you (media) guys thought I was joking (about boldly not only linking his return to the wins but predicting it). I was not joking. I was very, very serious. I told you we were going to be 4-0. We have to keep building. Some tough games are coming now. But with me back, we have more chances now."
No one's arguing, though perhaps because no one can believe what's going on after a 10-game losing streak and multiple blowout losses. Instead, the Bulls now have the Eastern Conference's longest current winning streak, though still 7-20. The Jazz is 13-15.
It was Kris Dunn to the rescue late with a pair of step back jump shots in the last 100 seconds and the Bulls then surviving a Rodney Hood three with 12.4 seconds left for a tie and Donovan Mitchell with a long running three at the buzzer after the Bulls again botched late free throws with 3.6 seconds left. But the Jazz was out of timeouts and only could get off the unlikely heave.
Dunn had 13 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and four steals and was four of 16 in the game when he stepped up and made the two clutch jump shots late. Robin Lopez had 16 points, continually benefitting from Dunn penetration and passes. Denzel Valentine had his best game in weeks with 13 points, a strong start to help the Bulls to a 30-24 first quarter lead and a big driving layup score with 2:49 left and the Bulls leading by two points.
The Jazz tied the game at 90 with 4:58 left after the Bulls had led by a dozen in the second quarter. But even with the Jazz getting within two points five times after that, the Bulls continually made the plays to retain the lead in a game with eight ties and 16 lead changes.
Bobby Portis after going scoreless through three quarters scored all nine of his points in the fourth quarter. David Nwaba had just three points, but his impact was significant again as he was a plus-15 in time on the floor. No one else was more than plus-5. In the four-game streak, the Bulls have won by a combined 36 points. In that stretch, Nwaba is a plus-44.
"Even when we went on the losing streak, those guys never stopped believing; they never lost the confidence, still came in and worked," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "It was very disappointing the way we lost a couple of those games (a total of four points combined in three losses during one week). But those guys kept coming in on a daily basis and getting after it, wanting to get better. That's the sign of a good group. When you have that, and they're continuing to grow, and they're doing it together, it's fun to see them out there playing the right way."
It's also fun to see Hoiberg getting rewarded as in back to back games he not only got called for a technical foul Wednesday, but his players outmaneuvered those of two of the top young coaches considered leading coach of the year candidates, Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder.
It was a Bulls team that took control of the game from the start with efficient and purposeful offense, twice as many first quarter assists as the Jazz, taking advantage of mismatches in the post as Dunn did quickly and Mirotic constantly. There was crisp passing and movement, Valentine cleverly finding Holiday running baseline for a first quarter dunk, Dunn making yet another steal and racing full court for a dunk. The Bulls execution on both sides of the ball was noticeably better.
Defensively, too, as the Bulls continued to challenge shots aggressively, switch without being forced into mismatches, fronting in the post and pushing players out of the paint. Plus, committing to inside position for nine offensive rebounds to five for the Jazz despite the presence of defensive pterodactyl Rudy Gobert.
Much of that was from Mirotic, long derided for being defensively challenged instead of challenging on defense. Instead, he matched Lopez for the team lead in offensive rebounds.
"The thing I was most pleased with Niko about, I mean he had some unbelievable shots, obviously, but defensively he was rock solid," said Hoiberg in starting his post game media conference talking Mirotic defense. "At the end of the game, we were able to switch because of Niko's ability to stay in front of his man. He was staying in his stance. I thought he did a solid job on the back end rebounding. Just another phenomenal game by Niko."
This Mirotic presence—or present—has to be one of the most bizarre and remarkable stories in the NBA this season.
Lampooned for the preseason fight that left him with broken facial bones, a concussion and suggestions that maybe he was out of the league, Mirotic has been everything the Bulls hoped he'd be in three years but rarely was. The 6-10 forward was another three of five on threes, now averaging 19.5 points with 52 percent three point shooting.
But it's hardly just the shooting, and even the defense, which is tough to practice during rehabilitation from a broken face.
Fans and media generally look to the last minutes of the game, time for the so called closer, to make judgments on clutch play.
But where the true great players emerge is during those inevitable stretches when everyone else goes flat. Suddenly, you're down 18 and that last run won't be enough.
The Bulls were right there against the Jazz, losing their big second quarter lead and hanging on just 49-48 at halftime. The Jazz led by phenomenal rookie Mitchell with 32 points took control with a 67-60 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
He called for the ball in isolation and made a tough baseline step back jumper. The Bulls defense stiffened and there was Mirotic with a putback of a Dunn miss. Then after stepping into the passing lane for a steal, Mirotoic dribbled up into a transition three to tie the game at 67. The play was made possible with Hoiberg changing the defense to suddenly blitz the pick and roll and the Jazz panicked. Mirotic then drove, lost the ball, picked it up and put in an awkward scoop shot. The next Mirotic score was perhaps the best and maybe symbolic of this new Bulls spirit.
Mirotic got inside with former Bull Thabo Sefolosha on him. Portis outside near the three-point arc threw over the top to Mirotic, who sealed his defender for the easy layin. The Bulls thus were able to take a 77-74 lead going into the fourth quarter instead of perhaps a hopeless battle back and one of those post game explanations of being in too deep a hole.
Mirotic is remarkably filling in the blanks these days.
"I think right now, Niko has brought a confidence to this team," said Hoiberg. "Niko does a lot of the little things that don't show up in the box score just by being in the right spot. He's got good hands, he's a good plug guy, he always understands our coverage schemes. We got down four and went to a blitz and I thought it changed the game. When you have guys who can make adjustments on the fly like that it certainly helps your team."
Lauri Markkaen remained out a second game with back spasms after indications he would return. Hoiberg said the Bulls opted for caution. Portis came through with those big fourth quarter scores even after nothing seemed to go right before then. Mirotic had a vital step back with the score tied at 90 and Valentine a drive to make it 94-90 with 4:05 left and then the later one when the Jazz got within 94-92. And then it was Dunn with the two mid range jumpers from left side, each with a two-point lead. And then just enough defense.
"My team believes in me, and the coaching staff believes in me," said Dunn. "I try to step up. It's a credit to all the guys. I think we all played good today. Everybody that stepped out on the court contributed. The coaching staff, they've been good with us. Our defense down the end is what really won us the game. Props to our team. I am in a better space. I love these guys. It's a good, positive energy on this team. We are all trying to improve. We are all trying to get better. We play off each other. We are doing a good job right now. We have a great chemistry on the court."
So that's what rebuilding looks like?
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