Bulls beat Knicks in Chicago on back of strong team performance

6 Bulls score in double digits, including Mirotic, Nwaba and Portis off of the bench

The Bulls Saturday didn’t get much out of a late third quarter sequence in their escape 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks, their second straight win after losing 10 in a row.

But with the interaction, teamwork and sacrifice between none other than Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic, the combatants in that ugly preseason fight scene, perhaps this Bulls team is becoming a team.

“I think the biggest thing (the win) shows you is a group that really cares and a group that is going to go out and compete every night regardless of what the circumstances are,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

Kris Dunn with another near triple double and another closing winner with two free throws for the final margin stood tall again at the close. Behold a pale horse to deliver the fatal blow to opponents?

“That’s what I’m trying to develop to, to be the closer. We definitely have multiple players who can do that, but I definitely want to be the first one to step up.”
Kris Dunn, who had 17 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and three steals and the last four Bulls points.

Lately, Dunn especially has stood tall with that drive that looked like a winner last week in Denver and then the hanging driving score in overtime Friday in Charlotte that gave the Bulls the overtime lead they wouldn’t lose. He added closing free throws.

Dunn dribbles in the Bulls vs Knicks game at the United Center

There was Lauri Markkanen with 15 points and a crucial late score on a slick Dunn layoff pass as the two repeatedly combined with plays to frazzle the Knicks. The Bulls shot 51.2 percent and handled 28 assists. They had six players score in double figures, including a team high 19 points off the bench for Mirotic, 11 for Robin Lopez, 10 for Portis and 15 for David Nwaba, the latter who makes the old Energizer battery bunny look like a sloth in comparison. Though not starting since his return from an ankle injury, Nwaba is closing games and led the team with 11 fourth quarter points, seven after the Knicks moved within 84-83 with 6:21 remaining.

“David Nwaba, for the second night in a row, his energy was the difference in the game,” said Hoiberg, admiring the Bulls 17 fast break points, most involving Nwaba. “Guys feed off his energy. His skill is he goes out and plays harder than everybody else on the floor; that’s a great skill to have. It’s a skill we need on this team.”

But what everyone most wondered about this Bulls team, now 5-20, was what would become of it given the preseason incident when Portis fractured Mirotic’s face with a punch. There were rumors of trade demands, isolation, retaliation, retribution, confusion.

But it was a jocular Mirotic back playing, making five of eight three pointers Saturday in his home debut after the fight. Mirotic bantered with reporters afterward about how it was no coincidence his return coincided with the Bulls first two-game winning streak of the season.

“I was really excited to play my first game at the United Center this season,” Mirotic said. “I just said to myself, ‘Go out there, enjoy playing at home,’ and it was great. My confidence is high now, especially because I’ve had the support of my teammates the first day I was back. Nothing coincidence here. I said to (assistant coach) Randy Brown (at the) Charlotte game we are going to win that game. He said, 'Why,’ I said, ‘I’m back.’ We won that game."

Nikola Mirotic shoots during the Bulls vs Knicks game at the United Center

“Today I tell him, too, ‘Randy, we are going to be 2-0.’ He said, ‘Niko, I trust you.’ We are 2-0, there is no coincidence.”

So you’re joking, Mirotic was asked as another question started. Mirotic interrupted.

“No joke,” Mirotic said. “I am very serious.”

You never know what to expect in life and sports, which is why it’s always worth watching.

So here it was late third quarter with the Bulls fighting — maybe next time look for a less physical word — to remain in front after a terrific and surprising start. Surprising in some sense since the Bulls had airline problems and didn’t arrive back in Chicago until Saturday afternoon instead of after the Friday night game. So straight to the arena against a Knicks team that had won the last five over the Bulls. A Knicks team with former Bull Joakim Noah, who was inactive for the Knicks Saturday. Fellow former Bull Doug McDermott had 10 points off the bench for New York.

The Bulls blew out to a 13-point lead and 27-18 after one quarter with the Dunn/Markkanen two step.

“We do have a lot of trust in Kris. He’s showing he’s going to go out there and make the right play. Running a lot of two-man game with he and Lauri, putting a lot of pressure on those guys and they made a lot of plays.”
Hoiberg, on Dunn

The Knicks got back within 49-44 at halftime after the Bulls had led by a dozen with about a minute left in the half. Then it looked like the odd travel might derail the Bulls as the Knicks nudged ahead 66-63 with about three minutes left in the third quarter. Little that happened in the ensuing sequence altered the result, but it may have smoothed the way to make it all about basketball.

First Portis drove left and missed. But Mirotic was there for the offensive rebound, Portis with a congratulatory offering as Mirotic went to the free throw line and made one of two. Portis was first to reach out to Mirotic in the banal free throw congratulations. No, no one flinched. As an aside, free throw shooting (and missing) suddenly has become a major problem for the Bulls with 13 of 23 free throw shooting Saturday. They’re shooting just 62 percent the last three games and have missed 23 free throws in that span.

The Bulls rebounded Mirotic’s miss and Portis got it and began driving the middle. He spotted Mirotic in the left corner and threw to him. Mirotic’s attempt missed everything and was hit out of bounds. Portis leaped for it and falling out of bounds, Portis threw back to Mirotic. Mirotic then passed up the shot and threw to Portis inside, who drove and was called for a travel.

Nothing came of it but perhaps the stitching together of a torn team, or at least a surgery of fractured teammates.

“I think he and Bobby have been terrific together in that second unit,” said Hoiberg. “Both have had productive nights. This is the second consecutive night that they’ve done that.”

And then when it really mattered the pair came through on the scoreboard.

They don’t appear to be planning any holiday gathering yet; but they are working together.

The Knicks moved out to a 76-74 lead with 9:34 left in the game when first for the Bulls Portis scored on a short floater and a driving layup to give the Bulls a 78-76 lead. Then Mirotic took the scoring baton from his rotation mate for a three pointer with Jerian Grant’s third consecutive assist. Mirotic then isolated and made a tough step back three for an 84-78 Bulls lead with 7:24 left.

“I thought the fourth quarter was the key stretch again with our bench,” said Hoiberg. “Set the tone early in the fourth similar to what we did last night to take control. A lot was getting out and running, defensive pressure and the intensity picked up and led to some of those transition baskets.”

Calling David Nwaba.

The undrafted 6-4 non shooting guard claimed on waivers this summer from the Lakers has been a revelation. The Knicks came right back with a McDermott three and a Kristaps Porzingis score to within 84-83 with 6:21 left. Then this all-Big West honorable mention made three consecutive brilliant plays.

David Nwaba in the Bulls vs Knicks game at the United Center

First he took a handoff pass from Grant with his defender in good position. Still, Nwaba whizzed by him on the baseline for a reverse layup and three-point play. Then after a Porzingis miss with Markkanen playing solid faceup defense, Nwaba took the rebound and drove 90 feet for the layup. Paul Zipser then picked off a Jarrett Jack pass and Nwaba took off. Zipser handed to Grant, who threw a 60-foot spiral to Nwaba for a layup. Bang, as Knicks announcer Mike Breen probably didn’t say. It was 91-83 Bulls and Knicks timeout.

But these young Bulls aren’t quite ready to make it easy on any of their coaches or fans. Last week there was three losses by a combined four points. Friday was overtime, and after leading 102-92 with 2:03 left on a Dunn drive, the Bulls froze. The Knicks scored 10 straight points to tie the game on a Porzingis 19 footer with eight seconds left. The Bulls went to Kobe, err, Kris, who drove right, and was fouled as the Knicks protested. Dunn made both and Porzingis’s three-point winner went short off the front rim at the buzzer.

“Wasn’t real pretty down the stretch,” agreed Hoiberg. “But to find a way for Kris Dunn to make a big play and get himself fouled and knock down those two free throws.”

And to find out they still can be a team. Not bad at all.

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