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By Sam Smith | 4.14.2015 | 12:51 a.m. CT
American reporters were waiting patiently outside the Bulls locker room late Monday after the Bulls dominant 113-86 victory over the Brooklyn Nets that at least clinched first round home court advantage. Nikola Mirotic, who led the Bulls with 26 points with a barrage of six three pointers in a second half blowout, was finishing up interviews with Spanish media.
Mirotic and Pau Gasol, the latter with his league best 53rd double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds, generally do interviews in two or three languages, media waiting for each to conclude to begin in their language. The English usually go first, but reporters rushed to Derrick Rose, who had another strong game with 13 points and seven assists and two of four threes because Rose usually dresses first and leaves. Mirotic, unaccustomed to American media habits, had left the locker room before reporters arrived a few times after big games earlier this season. So he was advised when he was the high scorer to wait. As he concluded in Spanish, Mirotic turned around to leave, quickly walking down the hallway and away from the waiting and speechless reporters.
Mirotic then turned back, laughing. “A joke,” he said.
Yes, these Bulls are starting to have some fun with Rose back and the return to health of most everyone, continued excellent play from their main stars and good contributions off the bench.
It left a Nets team that needed the game for the playoff race shocked over the way the Bulls had their way, leading by double digits the last 22 minutes and by more than 20 the entire fourth quarter. “I really, honestly can’t explain it,” said Joe Johnson. “I don’t know how it was possible with it being such an important game.”
The Bulls obviously had a lot to do with that.
The Bulls in going to 49-32 moved into third place in the Eastern Conference by a half game over Toronto, though the Raptors get third if they win their last two games. The Bulls finale is home Wednesday against Atlanta. Though it seems the Bulls may be starting to peak at the right time with their third consecutive win. They shot 50 percent and made 12 of 30 threes. They had a 14-2 fast break edge with Rose and Aaron Brooks pushing the ball hard out of the backcourt. They held the Nets to 36.8 percent shooting with just 12 assists and returned to an advantage in points in the paint.
Kirk Hinrich stayed out with a minor knee problem and the Bulls gave Joakim Noah a game of rest. So Taj Gibson started and was sharp with 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. Jimmy Butler added 17 points on seven of 10 shooting.
It was a game in which even as the Bulls led 26-21 after one quarter and 57-50 at halftime they seemed to have the sort of control to take over at any time. And they would in the third quarter with first Butler working off Rose and then Mirotic closing with a trio of three pointers in the last 90 seconds for an 87-65 lead after three to start the runaway.
“It was important game for us, important game for me, especially before the playoffs because I didn’t shoot really well the ball from the three-point line and it was good day to get more confidence,” said Mirotic. “In the first half in the locker room some my players say, ‘Niko, don’t think. Just shoot the ball. Because you are wide open; don’t pump fake.’ These guys they are right. I just need to shoot. Because sometimes when I think, I miss the shots; when I don’t think I make it. So I made first one, second one. I was, ‘OK, there you go, keep shooting.’ It was a good day. We played great defense, great offense, how we shared the ball today was terrific, good for us, for me.”
In Mirotic, the Bulls may just have that additional playoff X-factor.
He’s been a revelation with his scoring, averaging about 10 points in just 20 minutes. And though he came to the Bulls and the NBA known for his three-point shooting, he hasn’t shot well, just 30.8 percent on threes before Monday. There were reasons, however, as he’s had to play small forward when the Bulls have their three big men healthy, and Mirotic doesn’t have as much advantage over more athletic small forwards. Plus, he’s played a lot as a result in pick and roll and dribble handoff, staples of the Bulls offense, instead of catch and shoot. So Mirotic has taken to pump faking and driving, drawing an exceptional number of fouls.
But as he’s gotten around the league, teams have adjusted. He hasn’t gotten as many foul calls with his pump fakes. Everyone makes rookies adjust. So Mirotic did, also.
He got into more catch-and-shoot situations and didn’t hesitate while the Bulls moved the ball with alacrity and purpose with Rose and Brooks having seven assists each among the team’s 26.
“The beauty of Niko is he’s not afraid,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He’s been great throughout the season and if he has a tough game he bounces back the next one. He’s got a great scorers’ mentality and his approach to the game is so good. He’s only going to get better and better. Just him on the floor creates space. He moves the ball, puts it on floor, draws fouls. Very skilled offensive player and he’s getting better defensively. He’s getting a good feel for how he’s being defended. The only thing I’m concerned with is if he hesitates; I want him to let it go.”
Thibodeau has taken to Mirotic like no other rookie in his tenure. Not that he has been easy on Mirotic, recently blistering him during the win over the 76ers Saturday when Philadelphia made some threes early in the fourth quarter to tighten the game. But Mirotic bounces back every time, endearing him to his first NBA coach.
“A lot of ups and down this year,” said Mirotic, who barely even spoke English a year ago. “It’s a big adjustment. Good thing I am playing much better the last part of the season. Right now I am trying to work hard and prepare myself for the playoffs. I’m just here to help my team. Sometimes I play more, sometimes I play less. But the most important is to help your team and be a better player and when your chance is here to play hard.”
It’s really little coincidence this is going on now with the return of Rose, who by the way bailed the Bulls out of that Saturday game and who was on the floor when the Bulls turned around the game in Miami for a 19-point comeback win. Even Mirotic, who is seeing Rose as a teammate for the first time, detects the difference.
“It’s amazing (to have Rose out there),” agreed Mirotic. “Mentally, too, because we see him on the court, me personally, too, we have more energy, we are feeling like everyone is there, we can see people real excited on the court. With Derrick back (there are) much more options and we can see we are getting ready for the playoffs and are playing really good basketball right now.”
It was evident from the start Monday with Gasol off to another good start as the Bulls rely on him early. Rose was pushing the ball, ending up in easy scores with Butler running with him. And then when Brooks came in for Rose, Brooks made several sharp passes for a three for Mike Dunleavy and dunk for Gasol. Rose would return in the second quarter and would team with Gasol, who was playing like 24 in beating the defense down court for layups on several occasions on passes from Rose.
“The big thing is obviously getting Derrick back,” said Thibodeau. “When you look at what Pau has brought to our team that’s given us an entirely different dimension. And you add in Jimmy and all he is doing and then all the other parts did well. The real function of the point guard is how the team played. He had a good pace, good tempo. He got the ball moving for us. High assist, low turnovers and I thought that gave us rhythm into our threes.
“There is no one like him,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “He has the power, quickness, speed; it’s very unusual. I don’t know if anyone else is like that in the league. What it does for your offense is it gets you easy scoring opportunities and can force the defense to collapse and when he is attacking the paint you are going to get good shots. He did that. He had a couple of pull ups that got him going; when he does that we are going to be good.”
Though the Bulls also have the old head in Gasol, winner of two championships with the Lakers. He understands well what’s ahead and what’s been behind.
“Our last three wins were important and positive, but again we had spurts during the year where we put three, four, five games together where we do things well and then we take a step back and we have a bad game,” Gasol pointed out. “Now we just have to make sure we’re tight, focused, locked in as we go into the playoffs and give ourselves the best possible chance. We haven’t had the continuity, but we are doing it as we are getting close. It will be important to show if we can continue to build chemistry during the playoffs. That’s the whole point; you try to build as you advance into the playoffs and the stronger move on and the weaker go home. So let’s see what we are capable of doing; the potential we have let’s see if we can bring it on the floor.”
As for Rose, it’s just a progression, though the emphasis is on playing. Rose even asked to return in the fourth quarter with the big lead, but Thibodeau kept him seated.
“I wanted to play (in the fourth), but at the same time there’s nothing wrong with resting,” Rose said. “I’ll workout tomorrow. Just trying to push myself, remind myself every time I catch it just to put pressure on the defense. I know that playing against a guard where he is steadily putting pressure on you (is tough). Just trying to play the way I would normally play in the playoffs and get my feet under me and conditioning.
“I’m just trying to read every game,” Rose explained. “They are playing me different almost every game. Tonight they were forcing me into the big, so Pau was open on the majority of the pick and rolls. I’m seeing the floor a little bit better. We’re finding people to shoot the ball. The only thing I think I am missing is the fourth quarter (playing time), but with the way I’ve been working out I think I am good enough to play in the fourth quarter.
“I always joke around to my friends (about Kurt Thomas). He played in this league 16 years and he found a way to bring positive play to the court,” said Rose. “I’m like that. Even if I’m not moving quick, not shooting the ball great you still have to defend me because I think I can control the game with just passing.”
Said Gasol: “I like (Rose’s) energy, his activity, his aggressiveness. I think he’s a guy who makes such a huge difference on the floor on both ends. Not just offensively, which we know he’s very explosive and can get really hot and make things happen. But defensively he can make a huge difference with our team to be able to lock down guards with his athleticism, quickness; can get so many deflections, something he needs to continue to do for us.”
Meanwhile, asked about the Bulls clinching home court in the first round, Rose admitted he was unaware and really doesn’t pay much attention to that stuff.
“I just want to play basketball,” Rose said. “To Thibs and (some) teammates it probably means a lot. I don’t care who we play, where, whenever. I’m just happy to be playing.”
Let the good times roll. And dribble and shoot.