Bulls pick up third-straight with win over Heat, 119-111

Can it be? A Bulls run? This is becoming unsettling.

The Bulls Monday with a 119-111 victory over the Miami Heat won their second straight game—third consecutive overall—since the return of Zach LaVine, who had 18 points in his part time play. This comes about a month after the Bulls greeted the return of Nikola Mirotic, who had all his 18 points in the fourth quarter Monday, with seven straight wins and 10 of 12. Heck, if Cameron Payne comes back the Golden State Warriors could be in trouble.

Perhaps that's a good place to end the hyperbole with the Warriors in the United Center Wednesday. But with the Bulls having lost to the Warriors by 49 points in November, at least take the under for now.

With Justin Holiday scoring 25 points with seven three pointers, Lauri Markkanen with 17 points, nine rebounds and the big shot to thwart a last Miami run with 1:08 left in the game, Denzel Valentine and Robin Lopez both scoring in double figures and Kris Dunn with 10 assists, this isn't a basketball aberration anymore. This is a good Bulls team, suddenly sure, unexpectedly unquestioned. The Bulls are 17-27 now, but for the last six weeks ranking among the best teams in the NBA.

A quarter of an NBA season is no small sample anymore.

"Right now we are rolling," said LaVine, who also had five rebounds and five assists with a pair of three pointers. "We have a good little thing going with the chemistry; keep winning. As players you just try to go out and keep winning, keep competing, prove yourselves. We keep creeping up (in the standings). I know some people don't like to hear that, but we are going to keep going for what we do: Play to win and play for each other and we're doing good right now."

Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Since the devastating last second defeat in Indiana Dec. 6, the Bulls are 14-7. That would be tied with Boston for third in the Eastern Conference in that nearly six-week span, barely behind Miami and Toronto. Only the Warriors, Minnesota and Clippers in the Western Conference have better records during that stretch.

Plus, this hasn't been a flukey schedule. Sixteen of those games have been against teams at .500 or better with wins over most of the best teams in the East, including Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana, Detroit and Miami.

"You get healthy with Niko and Zach and David (Nwaba) coming back into the picture, to have a full complement of players and full roster and a big part of this is having the right mentality and sacrificing for your teammate, which our guys have bought into and accepted the role given to them," acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "David finished against Detroit and tonight it was Denzel making big plays. It's going to be different guys on different nights. So I give our guys credit for handling the situation well. Similar to when we had Bobby (Portis) and Niko coming back."

Oh right, Mirotic. Wasn't he supposed to be going?

That's been the conventional wisdom lately with Monday the first date given his late signing that Mirotic could be traded. And then missing a few games last week. Hah! Conspiracy! Keeping him healthy and safe for the deal? It's obvious.

Mirotic Monday was gone for three quarters, though he played 12 minutes as the Bulls led 84-72. He was scoreless with three shots, two rimming out and one sideline towel kicked in frustration. Then he went full Niko on the raging Heat, scoring 10 of the Bulls first 13 points of the fourth quarter in four minutes to launch the Bulls to a 98-83 lead. Mirotic made three of seven threes and bumped around for seven free throws as Miami got within five with 3:39 left. Holiday and Markkenen, the latter with a fraction left on the shot clock, then made the big shots and the Bulls closed it with free throws.

And the party was on, which actually started earlier in the evening for Mirotic.

Lopez didn't play late with Miami playing small to get back in the game. But Lopez outdid  Miami's Hassan Whiteside, working fluid pick and rolls with Dunn and LaVine for by far the team's best plus/minus ratings, plus-16 against the Pistons and plus-25 Monday.

With Mirotic explaining his day to reporters, Lopez interrupted to suggest Mirotic tell them about the dancing.

It seems the insouciant Montenegrin was spending much of the pregame session, well, dancing near the stars.

"It's so far in the NBA my most fun moment, most consistent moment and I am really enjoying it," said Mirotic. "Sometimes I am not having good starts, but I know the game will come. I am having that confidence; just want to keep what I am doing now and I will be fine in the future.

"I was dancing," he confirmed to the investigative media. "I was so happy. Enjoy, because when I enjoy I am playing better, giving good impact to the team. I am all positive, all love, sharing the love. I was happy coming here to the locker room, having another opportunity to play well. I love playing in the United Center, the best thing you can do."

Now, does that sound like an unhappy man?

Yes, winning does that, too.

But that's another indicator with this Bulls team, which, by the way is just four games behind the pace of last season's playoff juggernaut.

Cue Jim Mora. Playoffs?

There's a joy for this Bulls group that's been missing around the team for a few years. Not just the enjoyment of success, because, well, they are 10 games under .500. One indicator of the most successful teams is when players are excited for one another, jumping off the bench to celebrate a play or an emotion. Like when Markkanen beating late Miami attempts to strip the ball from him dribbled full court through what outside the arena would have been a felony assault and a misdemeanor and forced himself to the basket for a lefty driving three-point play with 18.9 seconds left.

Markkanen then posed flexing his left bicep in something of a takeoff of the flexing Portis. Markkanen revealed a big smile as he laughed with Valentine and Holiday going to the free throw line.

"Had to do that," Markkanen said afterward. "Wore a sleeve; was referring to Bobby because he always does that. Just laughing with Bobby. I'm not that person to do that all the time; just something with me and Bobby."

There's a lot of joy in what used to be mudville, and they're just playing.

"Whatever happens happens," shrugged LaVine, who may have his playing time extended after Wednesday. "That's above our heads. We have to go out and focus on the game and keep this thing going."

Which Mirotic is doing as well as playing along with the trade speculation.

When a reporter asked obliquely about these rumors, Mirotic playfully questioned him and asked if he were the one writing them. No, Mirotic was assured.

"Just checking," Mirotic said with those dancing eyes.

"Hopefully few more games at least," he said. "Especially that Golden State game. I want to play. It's going to be a fun game. Let's go day by day; that's all I can do.  Be focused and enjoy this moment."

That's been the order of the day for these Bulls, who once again got off flying, a 13-7 lead stretched to 24-15 and 32-25 after one quarter. And this was the hot Heat, winners of seven straight and 10 of 12.

The Bulls have been going through LaVine to start his two games since he usually plays about five minutes in that first stretch. He first passed to Lopez for a score and then made a driving basket and a three. Check those All-Star ballots. LaVine had seven first quarter points with moves seemly draped in velvet. You'd think he'd only missed 10 months instead of 11.

"One was 7:30, one was at 2:30," LaVine quipped when asked to compare his second game to his first.

Yes, now they're doing standup.

"Jumped on them early, kept the pressure and went throughout the game," said LaVine with his breakdown. "Little scary toward the end, but, regardless, got the W. So it was a good game. I'm still a little tired, a little winded, but I feel good. It goes by really quick. I look up and ‘Man, it's already seven minutes.' But that's what I have to deal with. I have to make the most of the 20 minutes. I think I'm doing a good job so far and I try to help whatever way I can."

Mirotic couldn't get his shot going to start the second quarter and the Bulls fell behind 40-37. The Heat edged ahead 46-41 before a good close with Lopez and his spinning drop step moves and another Holiday three gave the Bulls some space with a 55-48 halftime lead.

"I love his stroke,"Hoiberg said of Holiday. "He's a kid always in great shape who can play a lot of minutes. He's going to battle on the defensive end. We've got to get him to quit fouling under two minutes, but for the most part he's been really solid out there, probably our most consistent guy and he's played the most minutes."

And Hoiberg has been masterful and subtle in his own right, the little jab at Holiday, later one at LaVine for over dribbling in his third sequence in the game late in the third quarter when Miami closed with a 7-0 run to get within 12.

"When he goes right into his move he's pretty darned good," said Hoiberg of LaVine. "But when he holds it and allows the defense to load on him generally we're not getting a great possession. But he is a guy who can create his own shot, certainly as well as anyone on the team and in the league. So it's great to see."

Hoiberg has his own style, but he remains demanding without the hysteria and histrionics. He continued to make all the right moves, closing Monday with Valentine, who had a big time score down the stretch stopping an 11-2 Miami run after closing with Nwaba against Detroit Saturday for more defense. Hoiberg managed the Miami personnel maneuvering, was deft to employ Lopez running out Whiteside, angling the offense more to Markkanen after halftime when he wasn't getting the ball early and then rode Mirotic to great benefit even after those scoreless three quarters.

"I wanted him to shoot every time he touched it and he did," Hoiberg said with a laugh. "No, Niko hit huge, huge shots for us. When he gets into a rhythm like that he can shoot it from anywhere with guys up underneath him. I think he hit three in a row that helped us get some separation. Then put he and Lauri out there to finish. The biggest thing tonight was Detroit had 30 second chance points against us; that was a big point going into this game and Miami had four."

Though the Bulls defense has been somewhat erratic, there's also been a strong game to game, even half to half response and adjustment from the team. Like the improved defense after halftime against the Pistons, the tougher defensive rebounding Monday. The players continue to respond to and credit the staff.

"You have to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff, too," said Mirotic. "Because they have been doing a great job. Been changing lineups. Sometimes I am closing the game, sometimes Rolo, sometimes me and Lauri, Bobby and me, it's been fun."

Like that Miami miss midway through the third quarter, Markkanen with the rebound and handoff to Dunn, who dribbled a few steps and the threw ahead about 80 feet to LaVine for a layup and 70-58 Bulls lead against the trailing James Johnson. Holiday followed that spacing out a trio of three pointers for the Bulls' 82-63 biggest lead of the game that was enough too continue the fun.

"Our guys continue to go out there and give great effort," said Hoiberg. "That's all we talk about. We're not talking about what's at stake. We're talking about going out there and playing the right way, playing hard, and playing unselfishly, trying to guard. And, our guys have been pretty solid with that with the exception of guarding."

Hey, no one's perfect.