No one would suggest Nikola Mirotic is the face of the Bulls, which certainly is Jimmy Butler. But the 6-10 European marksman may be the embodiment of, if not the team, this Bulls season.
It continued as something of a reflection of Mirotic Wednesday in a dominating Bulls 117-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons in which Mirotic led the team with a season high 28 points.
Just when you think they are done, here they come again.
“We try to get Niko going because when he is making shots it makes everyone’s job easier,” said Jimmy Butler, who had 16 points and 12 assists and probably one of his best games of the season with just six shots. “You can’t leave him. Just staying confident and being who you are on the floor.”
None of us quite know who Mirotic is; of course, neither do we know who this Bulls team is, the one which Tuesday blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead and lost in Toronto, one of the league’s lowest scoring and poorest shooting that Wednesday ran up the scoreboard like a hot slot machine and dominated a Pistons team with a balanced and unselfish game that saw the Bulls with a season high 36 assists, 58.8 percent shooting and the sort of basketball that lights up your fantasies.
“We really share the ball and the way we play tonight was beautiful and I hope we can continue playing like that the rest of the season,” said Joffrey Lauvergne, who had 17 points and seven rebounds as starting center and team best plus-26 mark. “If we are doing this we have a good chance for the playoffs.”
The Bulls did get back into a tie for ninth with Detroit at 34-38, a game and a half behind eighth place Miami. Paul Zipser added 15 points and Bobby Portis off the bench 12. Joffrey, who? Oh, Lauvergne. The Frenchman acquired in the Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott trade became a starter with Robin Lopez suspended one game for the fight with Serge Ibaka in Toronto and Cristiano Felicio injured in that game in a fall.
So the 6-11, 220 pounder did a credible job holding off Andre Drummond and was a clever component of an active and swift moving Bulls offense, often catching tough inside passes on pick and roll with Butler for scores.
“Joff plays incredibly hard; did what he was asked to do on both ends,” said Butler.
He’ll return to the bench with Lopez coming back against Philadelphia Friday, but suddenly the team has another intriguing option to aid the offensive motion.
Though what stood out most was the play of Mirotic. Yes, everyone looks good shooting 12 of 15, as he did. But several were extremely tough driving scores, and Mirotic several times faked and stepped in for easier shots, playing more simply and sound. Just two weeks ago, he was out of the rotation for the second time this season, not even on the active list, seemingly one foot out of the Bulls organization. And there was Mirotic back Wednesday carrying the offensive load with Butler a clever distributor, squaring up defensively, shaking balls loose with three steals and running out to help the Bulls to a 22-11 margin in fast break points.
It mirrored in some ways this Bulls team that for weeks can look disinterested and outmatched, on the verge of being broken up. And then put together games like Wednesday’s, or three quarters in Toronto against a team that believes it is a competitor for the NBA Finals.
“All season has been up and down,” acknowledged Mirotic. “But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. For me, it’s very important we all are working to get in the playoffs; it is an opportunity for all of us to still prove we are alive, we can fight. It was great game by me. Rajon (Rondo) gave me a lot of assists. It is great to play with him, always looking for me; he is big time.
“It’s crazy,” Mirotic said with a smile, reporters having rushed to interview him first in the Bulls post game locker room for perhaps the first time all season. “It is exciting because it means something when you are doing something well, but I have always been very positive about everything. When they told me I am going to be out of the rotation, I was first guy coming here working out, being positive with my teammates, getting ready for my chance and, of course, it is a surprise to see all those (media) guys in here wanting to talk to you.
“Hopefully, I will see you guys again next game,” Mirotic said with that warm smile. “I am looking forward for that, but at the end of the day the most important is we won this game. It’s not about me; it’s about the team.
It’s a long shot the way things have gone for the Bulls, now winners of three of their last 11 games. But if they play like they did Wednesday, they become a formidable team, one now scoring more than 110 points in regulation the last two games.
“I was proud of the guys for the way they bounced back after last night’s disappointment,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We talked before the game tonight about how well we played for the majority of that game last night, besides the last five to five and a half minutes. Tonight, we sustained the effort for the full 48. It was great to see with 36 assists and only 11 turnovers. The ball was really moving out there the entire night. Our backs are against the wall; we have to (sustain this). The effort has to be there every night we take the floor.”
Alert: First backs to the wall mention of the season!
The Bulls never had to worry much Wednesday, bouncing out ahead 25-13 on a 13-0 first quarter run that sent the Pistons into a timeout after Mirotic dribbled full court following a rebound and scored on a layup. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy went into full exasperation face.
The Bulls led 32-23 after one quarter and then the Pistons closed within 59-53 at halftime. But, hey, 59 Bulls points. That has taken into the fourth quarter at times. There were highlights all over. Zipser scored on a driving scoop for a three-point play, Michael Carter-Williams drove half court for a left handed layup and Jerian Grant got back in the rotation and added a tough driving layup. Cameron Payne was back from D-league assignment, but he didn’t play.
Perhaps most striking, in addition to Mirotic’s play, was the subtly of Butler’s game, driving and repeatedly handing off, running a clever pick and roll with Lauvergne that opened the middle well and created more space. Lauvergne showed an ability to make tough catches in traffic. Gone were the isolation, ball pounding, clock running out possessions. The ball danced around the perimeter, going inside and out with a half dozen passes on many possessions. You had to look twice to make sure they were Bulls jerseys.
“You lean on your best players when you need them the most, and we needed this one in the worst way, especially after last night,” Hoiberg reiterated. “Jimmy was so efficient out there; that was the most impressive thing about his game tonight. Very easily, Jimmy could have had a triple double tonight. And again, he made just great simple plays. When Detroit double teamed him, he got the ball in the pocket. I thought Lauvergne was great. Jimmy got him the ball. I thought Niko benefitted from that as well. Jimmy had 12 assists and probably six or seven hockey assists as well. Just a good solid effort from our guys.”
The Bulls flashed out to multiple 20-point leads in the third quarter with a 15-2 start to the second half: Another Mirotic three (four of six for the game) and a floater, a Lauvergne turnaround bank shot, Butler slashing off the ball on a bounce pass from Rondo, who had nine assists.
“Rondo is a smart player, Jimmy, Nikola; everyone is unselfish from the starting five,” said Lauvergne, who, obviously, is new. “We have to keep playing like this.”
We might also see more of Lauvergne, who gives the Bulls an alternative with a big man who is active and helps open the lanes. He’s more between power forward and center, but he kept Drummond from dominating as he has in the past against the Bulls. Drummond did get 17 rebounds and the Pistons had a 44-36 rebounding edge. But Lauvergne made plays, and even hit a three.
“I was a bit surprised (to start),” he said, having played 93 minutes in nine games with the Bulls. “I was ready to play, so I go and play my game. I know I am a good player. I am going to bring every time they need me. I am going to give everything because I really want to make this playoff. So how many minutes I play, five or 25, I want to give my best to this team.
“The trade was a surprise,” Lauavergne admitted. “Here I am going to get my chance at some point, so I have to be ready. So after every game I didn’t play or didn’t play a lot, I ran on the treadmill to keep in good shape. I’m ready. We have 10 games left and I don’t know how many minutes I will play but I will be ready.”
The way he played it should be more as the Bulls closed the third quarter leading 91-73. No problem this time as after a shaky start to the fourth, Portis finished a floater after the ball bounced around like in a Globetrotters routine. And then the Bulls piled on with consecutive threes from Mirotic, Lauvergne, Zipser and Grant. Anthony Morrow even got in to add another.
“We stayed together,” said Butler. “The way we moved the ball, the way we guarded, it looked really good out there on both ends of the floor. Making shots helped, we were really whipping the ball around.”
Even Butler sounded surprised.
You never quite know what to expect from some of these players, this team. But there appears to be something there.