It turns out the Bulls do have a Big Three. Just that nobody knew it. Could we all have been that wrong? Could we have underestimated them that much, basketball experts that we all are?
Kris Dunn, David Nwaba and Nikola Mirotic?
"These guys," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, "have made leaps and bounds from where we were as far as making plays down the stretch and going out and playing with confidence when it matters most."
And now with Monday's 117-115 fourth quarter comeback victory down the stretch over the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bulls have won six consecutive games and remain one of the hottest, and most impressive, teams in the NBA. With the win over the 76ers minus Joel Embiid, the Bulls streak, matching their longest in three years, came against five teams ranked in playoff position in their conferences and top teams like the Celtics and Bucks.
And Monday with Mirotic and Dunn leading with 22 points each, the Bulls found yet another thrilling and inspiring way to their happy place, overcoming an eight-point deficit in the last 3:49 with brilliant offensive and defensive plays from Mirotic, big time shots from Dunn, and Nwaba again down the stretch taking on one of the game's better and biggest players, the 76ers Ben Simmons.
Because when the 76ers had one last chance to tie the game after a Mirotic miss with 15 seconds left and the Bulls leading by two points, the scrappy Nwaba squared up the driving Simmons, who finished with a triple double despite the massive height deficit. Nwaba forced Simmons into the helping Dunn, shooting long and Mirotic coming down with yet another crucial rebound among his game high 13.
"Got to give credit to the team," said Mirotic, who combined with Dunn to score the Bulls last 13 points. "We were nine points down, five minutes to go from the end of the game and we found a way to win. That's been a huge difference from a few weeks ago. Sharing the ball and finding the right guy in the right position. It's just been fun playing with those guys now.
Kris Dunn was amazing finding the right guy, making clutch shots," said Mirotic. "It is also (a different Mirotic). When I am out there I am just trying to make it simple; it is true that I am playing with a lot of confidence right now. It's been a long time I did not have fun playing basketball; long, long time. Especially coming from the tough moment (preseason altercation with Bobby Portis). I tell myself, ‘Niko, just try to do your work, try to have fun. And try to put all that work you did in the summer in the game.' And that is all I've been trying and the difference is I'm not just thinking about offense this year; I am trying to improve defensively. That's what's making my life easier during the game. I am very, very happy about it. But I know there is a lot of room for myself to improve, too."
Even better to come?
Almost forgot; it was several simply superb Mirotic defensive plays in the last minutes that kept the Bulls one time sinking ship afloat. There was Mirotic's block on a Dario Saric drive leading to Dunn's three at 2:46 left for the tie at 107. And then a Mirotic strip of J.J. Redick leading to his own short post up jumper and three-point play for a 110-107 Bulls lead, the emotional Mirotic pounding his chest in triumph.
"Last season you probably did not see me putting that emotion in the game," Mirotic acknowledged. "It's never (too) late; just those huge plays and huge stops, especially when you are winning; it's been fun. You see the crowd differently, everybody cheering for us and giving us energy. Just need to have more patience for us and we will do our job to compete each night and try to win as many games as we can."
And then Mirotic's clinching three with 42.4 seconds left after Dunn yet again collapsed the defense with his penetration and fired out to Mirotic on the right wing.
"That pass he made to Niko was awesome," marveled Hoiberg.
"It's all about keep winning," said Mirotic. "Don't have to stop now."
Portis added his own double/double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Justin Holiday was the third Bulls with at least 20 points in the new high powered offense, Holiday with five threes. Nwaba had 10 points along with Denzel Valentine and Lauri Markkanen, the latter in his return from missing three games with back spasms. Though playing unevenly, Markkanen made a crucial three with 3:10 left to draw the Bulls within 107-104 after the game looked lost and introducing the Mirotic and Dunn finale.
The Bulls still are just 9-20, but this has been one of the most unexpected runs in franchise history, a team coming off 10 straight losses and seemingly headed to one of the poorest seasons in franchise history. And then the return of Mirotic after the preseason fight and the uncertainty of whether even teammates could coexist. Instead, he and Portis have been a winning tandem, the team regularly improving when they play together.
Mirotic is averaging 20.3 points in his return, all Bulls wins, and 24.3 points and 9.5 rebounds the last four games. Teammates even have been deferring to him as the de facto leader with his experience, calm during tense times, encouragement and uniting force. Yes, that guy.
"Niko means a lot, a great leader for all the young guys, especially me," said Dunn. "He talks to me the most. He wants me to be a leader for this group because I am a point guard. He plays with that toughness, that grit. He brings that fun to basketball. He's been in so many games, made big plays; he understands when we are in a drought, get into the right place, try to execute. When the ball's not going in, he's the first to talk to everyone about getting stops."
Dunn has been making defensive stops and especially clutch shots late in almost every win, ranking among the league leaders in steals and averaging about 14 points and six assists as a starter. And then coming into the game having missed his last 10 threes, Dunn pulled up without hesitation to make the three to tie the game with under three minutes left.
"Kris Dunn, you just look at what he's done these last few weeks, really taking games over down the stretch," said Hoiberg. "He really put the team on his back; he and Niko there, in the last couple minutes, willed us to a win."
Added Simmons: "Dunn (we think he meant Nwaba) put a lot of pressure on me. I had some turnovers, but I feel like overall I should've been more aggressive."
Nwaba helped make sure that didn't occur as he's averaging about 11 points in the winning streak and many more defensive plays as Hoiberg waited to put Nwaba on Simmons late. Simmons attempted just two shots in the last six minutes of his 18 shots, the last one a 75-foot heave at the buzzer. Both missed.
"One area of Niko's game that gets overlooked is his defense," reminded Hoiberg. "He's always in the right spot. He understands the game plan; you can see he gets in his stance, knows when a mismatch is going on in the post and when to come get the ball out of somebody's hands. He just does a lot of little things on the defensive end of the floor that go unnoticed. And, his rebounding was excellent tonight.
"(It's) two guys back into our lineup with Niko, what he's doing out there with the numbers and David is doing so many little things for our team," Hoiberg added. "He (Nwaba) gets us going sometimes when we are struggling offensively by going coast to coast, getting out full court and making plays and defensively what he is doing right now, especially the last two nights. He goes out and guards Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and made him work for everything he got and tonight I took him out for a few minutes to get him rested to guard Simmons down the stretch. David is doing a lot of little things for the team. We missed him a lot when he was out of the lineup. So to get those two guys back has made a world of difference for our team."
How could we have not seen that coming, the return of Nikola Mirotic from broken facial bones and David Nwaba from a sprained ankle and being cut by the Lakers to galvanize the Bulls and make them one of the hottest teams in the NBA?
Really, none of this makes any sense, but it is happening, strong road wins in Charlotte and Milwaukee, a comeback win over the 76ers, an absolute destruction of the Celtics. Sure, Kyrie Irving didn't play and no Embiid Monday as he still doesn't play back to backs. But Markkanen just returned and Zach LaVine, generally regarded as the best talent on the roster, hasn't played yet this season.
Could it be that the rebuilding took six weeks?
Of course not, but it could be Mirotic is finally able to show the talent predicted for him, the top young European player for two years. Similarly for Portis, another first round draft pick and complemented by lottery picks like Dunn and Markkanen, albeit young. And a gem like Nwaba. Remember, Golden State gets a lot of support with finds like Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia and now Omri Casspi.
Mirotic has playfully been joking about the lack of coincidence with the wins and his return, and teammates have played along. Dunn keeps agreeing the answer is, "Niko's back."
Team chemistry seems only to have improved, and if this Niko and Bobby still not talking thing is becoming tiresome, it's had no visible impact on the team, the chemistry seemingly better each game.
That was one of the few positives during the first month of losing, the players confident, if unrewarded, the effort and enthusiasm transcending the results.
"We were positive the whole time even though we had plenty of losses; we were positive throughout the whole thing and I think that's what's special about this group," said Dunn. "We understand there will be rough times, adversity will hit. But as long as we stay positive and keep fighting and improving as a team things will get better. When the chemistry is going well and everyone is happy and smiling and having fun with it, that's the difference."
It was a stumbling start again for the Bulls like in Milwaukee, trailing 18-10 and then with Holiday's hot shooting first half leading 30-25 in the first quarter and 67-59 in a raucous first half with 11 lead changes and Holiday's 20 points.
"I loved that first half," said Hoiberg. "Our pace was as good as it's been all season. They scored, we didn't put our heads down, we got it in quick. We got the ball up the floor and made quick decisions, had quick strikes. That's growth for our team."
For Hoiberg as well since players again were quick to praise Hoiberg for his adjustments, his motivation and demands.
"Fred is doing an amazing job," said Mirotic. "Today he put Lauri and me together, huge adjustment, he playing five, I playing five. We were reading each other, he was popping, I was going inside. Have to give credit to the coaching staff."
It was 89-87 Bulls after three quarters and setting up for yet another thrilling close. Or not as the 76ers with a 9-0 run, the Bulls with three turnovers and missed layups were outscored 14-5 to start the fourth quarter. When the Bulls couldn't get much going and were trailing 105-96 after a Markkanen missed three with 5:40 left, it appeared the dream was over at five wins.
Then there was nothing but big plays, Portis starting it by knocking Saric aside for a three-point play. Still trailing by seven with 3:35 left, Mirotic made a clever interior baseline pass to a cutting Nwaba (when isn't he?) for a layup to within six. Hey, maybe. Then came Holiday making the extra pass to Markkanen in the left corner for the three and three-point deficit with 3:11 left. Game on!
Nwaba overplayed Simmons, denying the pass. So Saric drove and Mirotic got him with the block. Dunn dribbled up, eying the floor, stopped and tied it with the three. Advantage: Bulls.
Redick tried to fake Mirotic, who grabbed the ball away from him, fell to the floor clutching it and called timeout. Who knows who'd have the ball if it were the NFL since the ball hit the ground. Mirotic's beard began cheering. Mirotic went into the post and hit a short shot over Saric and was fouled for the three-point play and three-point Bulls lead with 2:08 left. Nwaba then kept Simmons off the ball again. So Robert Covington tried a three and Mirotic went up over everyone for the defensive rebound.
Dunn drove into the lane, crossed over T.J. McConnell and made a little 10 foot fading shot for a 112-107 Bulls lead with 1:26 left to conclude a 13-0 run. Saric scored on a slick Simmons pass, but Dunn sized up Covington on a switch and dropped a 16 footer to retain the five-point lead with 1:05 left.
These 76ers even without Embiid are lethal, but after a Saric three-point play it was Dunn again. And Mirotic again.
Dunn put a big time crossover move on Jerryd Bayless as the 76ers were trying everyone on him by now. Saric ran to help in the lane and Dunn threw a perfect pass from practically under the rim for Mirotic's clinching three.
Mirotic ran back, his index finger raised.
They're No. 1?
"Niko's brought a confidence to this team," said Hoiberg. "You see our bench really rallying behind him when he is is making plays, see the guys on the floor celebrating together when he made the big plays. Had a big one the other night with the three-point play against Milwaukee, similar to tonight. Niko's been in pressure situations a lot in the course of his basketball life and it's great to have an experienced player out there with our young guys to help close some of the close ones. I give Niko a lot of credit, he's been awesome. When you have guys playing with confidence it rubs off on the whole team."