Mirotic and Portis carry Bulls to third consecutive win
Nikola Mirotic notched 24 points and eight rebounds while Bobby Portis added a career high 23 points in win over Celtics
The Bulls Monday gave the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics their worst loss of the season, a one-sided game long Bulls domination in a 108-85 victory.
The Bulls with their third consecutive victory after 10 straight losses were carried by the seamless teamwork of Nikola Mirotic with 24 points and eight rebounds and Bobby Portis with a career high 23 points.
The Bulls then left a gleeful United Center to witness Elvis riding a flying shark while Adam Sandler works on his Oscar acceptance speech. Hey, better watch out for that meteor about to hit the chicken riding the surf board.
"Niko's been awesome," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of the Bulls forward who, not so coincidently he insists, returned three games ago from the facial fractures he suffered being punched during preseason by Portis. "That's obviously an understatement with getting him back and winning the three games that he's been in our lineup. He and Bobby were terrific again playing together. Those guys were playing off each other. When we got switches, they were hitting each other in the high/low, finding each other. I just love the chemistry those two guys are playing with right now. It's been fun to watch."
There's obviously just no figuring what to expect these days, and even with these Bulls. The Celtics have been the big story of the NBA season thus far, winners of 16 straight recently and all over the debate for at least the NBA Finals. Sure, their lead scorer Kyrie Irving sat out with a leg problem Monday. But the Bulls were without their leading scorer Lauri Markkanen with a back problem. No Gordon Hayward for Boston lost for the season? The Bulls will match that with no Zach LaVine, whom they figure should be their best player.
So no excuses as the Bulls were way, way, way better than Boston and it was obvious.
"Chicago dictated the whole game," agreed Boston coach Brad Stevens. "They played harder than we did, they played with more presence than we did, they played more competitive than we did, they played with more authority than we did. We just got our butts kicked. It was a collective success for them and a collective failure for us."
And off the Bulls went to 6-20.
"The only thing I can say is Niko is back."
- Nikola Mirotic after an impressive 108-85 victory over Boston
Perhaps it's not a message to the NBA, and TNT isn't changing the schedule yet to add more Bulls games.
But the Bulls with Mirotic's return last Friday have been a dynamic defensive team, active offensively and committed to Hoiberg's demands. The return from an ankle injury of the peripatetic David Nwaba, who seems to be everywhere, also has made a big difference.
So has the consistency in the rotation with Kris Dunn ensconced at point guard. He had 12 points and excellent relief from Jerian Grant with eight points and nine assists, Grant's second consecutive game with nine assists. Nwaba had 13 points and six rebounds as the Bulls bench outscored Boston's 55-30. The Celtics came in as the league's top ranked defense, first in fewest points allowed and second in lowest field goal percentage. The Bulls played like they were in an empty gym, having one of their better shooting games of the season while also making a dozen threes. They went to the free throw line 25 times to 14 for Boston, had nine steals to a pair for Boston.
This perhaps doesn't quite signal a revolution for the Bulls, but it certainly was a Boston massacre.
Immediately following home wins, Bulls broadcaster Steve Kashul speaks to a principal contributor on the floor for the fans to hear. Kashul asked Mirotic about the difference lately.
"The only thing I can say," offered Mirotic, "is Niko is back."
Whoever that is wearing No. 44, it's uncertain if anyone has seen that guy before.
It was the second consecutive game Mirotic led the team in scoring, his 13 first quarter points keeping the Bulls within 29-28 after a fast Boston start. The Bulls second unit emerging with the hustle and attitude of Portis and Nwaba then crushed Boston with a 24-2 run that enabled the Bulls to lead 56-42 at halftime.
"It is about the team," said Mirotic. "I like to say it that way because it's true. The team is playing great and we are finding a way to be aggressive together, and that's the difference with the team and so far we are doing a good job the last three games."
No blown leads this time.
Poor games happen to the best teams; most top teams talk of three to five games a season they won't seriously compete. The Celtics had played Sunday, but it was in Detroit, maybe an hour flight away. Boston had been touting it's rookie Jayson Tatum, but he had four points on one of seven shooting. Al Horford supposedly was questionable, but he played almost 32 minutes in a blowout and was constantly denied by Mirotic's physical post play fronting Horford. All those little Celtics pieces that were so celebrated, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, were there. And they were overnatched.
It was a season low points for Boston while the Bulls had their biggest margin of victory and biggest lead of the season, 30 points late in the game.
The Celtics made one little run in the third quarter, but Dunn blocked a Smart layup attempt and finished a layup on the other end to squash that. The Bulls then led 78-63 after three. There was one last Boston baked bean of an attempt to dump the Bulls like a tea party, getting back within 12 points early in the fourth quarter. But then it was a Grant pullup, a Portis 20 footer, a Mirotic three, Portis taking advantage of the switch and mismatch inside for yet another easy score. As broadcaster Neil Funk would say, KaKaKaKa-Boom!
"The last four games we lost we were in the game (with a chance) to win," noted Portis. "We just didn't finish them. I feel our team is playing the same way now; just we're winning. Winning makes things better, everyone feels good, everybody goes out and plays a little different, a little harder. I like now how everything is clicking and everyone is in sync. Our defense has been tremendous.
"Me and Dave (Nwaba), we feel like we are the junkyard dogs of the second unit, go out there and play hard, play with energy and effort and that's one thing we can bring each and every night," said Portis. "I love playing with Dave. He's a spark plug, goes hard every day. He doesn't need the ball to impact the game. That's a big skill to have. I just try to go out and do what I do best, play hard every day."
The Bulls have been showing that throughout the lineup, though perhaps most unforeseen is this comity and connection between Portis and Mirotic. Their relationship has in many respects overshadowed this rebuilding season, that shadow being the very dark cloud of their preseason fight, Portis' team longest suspension, Mirotic out for more than a month with broken bones in his face.
There were rumors and speculation about ultimatums, trade demands, separate planes.
The actuality has been seamless teamwork, Mirotic and Portis often playing together with Portis at center moving Cristiano Felicio out of the rotation.
Portis has been more circumspect about the events, obviously embarrassed and contrite.
"That situation is over; we're just trying to play basketball," Portis said when asked after the game about teaming so successfully with Mirotic. "Everybody keeps talking about that, but that doesn't matter anymore. I don't want to keep talking about me and Niko. We are just trying to do what we do, win basketball games."
For his part, Mirotic, the victim, has been almost jubilant. He's declined to discuss the events of the altercation, but he's been light hearted since his return. He's joked about the team success due to his being back and after the Boston game pointed to his previous seasons when he played best in March. This is the "March Niko," he said.
"In my mind it's March," said Mirotic. "You guys know March is my month. So, ‘Niko, keep it going.' It's working (so) it seems like it is March, but it is not. My only goal was to get back and help the team win and so far we are having great chemistry and Bobby and I are playing good. We are finding each other during the game, we are bringing that energy the team needs. I am doing my job; he is doing his job. Right now, I think when we are both on the court it seems the team is playing well. We need to give credit to Fred. Fred is the one who is making us play; he is the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spot to play.
"Just reading each other," Mirotic offered casually about Portis. "He made three threes. When he is popping, I am trying to roll and just reading the defense and the same way when I am popping he is going to the basket. We had a few mismatches today and we both went to the post against the small. It was just good (recognition) about the game. We prepared well, so we are playing good basketball, finally."
There was a pause from the English speaking reporters, so Mirotic then said, "Spanish." Yes, next.
Mirotic routinely does interviews in at least three languages as everyone sort of milled around trying to figure out what the heck is going on with these guys and this team. It seemed Greek to everyone.
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