Bulls remain undefeated against the Cavs, win 99-93

That’s the defending champions? C’mon, you can’t be serious. Swept by the Bulls? Who last time at home were blown out by the 76ers. The Cavs playing a game they felt needed, a game they wanted, LeBron serious, Kyrie angry. Dominated by Nikola Mirotic?

The Bulls still may not make the playoffs, which may be the best news for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who Thursday lost 99-93 to the Bulls.

It was the Bulls with a comeback from a double digit first half deficit behind Mirotic’s 28 points, winning a fourth straight from the Cavs, and now 7-1 against Cleveland under Fred Hoiberg as coach. He’s the Cavs Whisperer: Sit, stay, lose. It also was the Bulls’ curious 20th consecutive home victory in a game televised by TNT. Yes! Serving up the facial!

“I don’t know what it is,” said Rajon Rondo, who drove the Bulls with a season best 15 assists along with nine rebounds and seven points. “But hopefully we get in the playoffs we’ll be on TNT.”

Yes, the Bulls could enjoy a smile, the first back to back wins in more than a month. Though 36-39 and still ninth place in the Eastern Conference. But winning three of four just at the right time.

Jimmy Butler added 25 points, six rebounds and five assists and was wearing a patch over his left eye after the game from being hit in the second quarter by Iman Shumpert. Butler likened himself to pirate One-eyed Willie from the Goonies movie.

But for theater maybe call this one, Damn Cavs.

And to beat them did Mirotic sell his soul?

Chicago shooting Niko from Montenegro. Hey, can you dance to that, also?

“We were nine points down, talked at half, faced each other and said, ‘Guys, let’s go, we can turn this game,’” Mirotic related afterward. “That’s what we did. Sometimes, especially in the beginning of the season, games like those, losing by nine or 10, (we) let it go. But now it seems like we don’t give up; playing hard and that is how it should be.”

It certainly has been for Mirotic, who again has been a March marvel with season high matching 28-point games in three of the last four games. He’s averaging 18.3 points the last nine games since being inexplicably banished from the rotation. He was six of 11 on threes Thursday with a franchise record second consecutive game making six three pointers. He’s shooting 46 percent on threes the last nine and 20 of 32 on threes the last four games. Steph Curry is calling for tips.

When the Cavs were dominating early in the game, leading 28-22 after one quarter, it was Mirotic keeping the Bulls in the game with 13 points. He had 17 on six of nine shooting at halftime with the Cavs ahead 50-41. Butler had 10 points and no one else on the team had more than five points.

The other guys arrived to help Mirotic after halftime.

There was talk at the trade deadline that Mirotic would not even be with the team. Though perhaps it was misunderstood. Maybe when Phoenix was mentioned it wasn’t the city but the soaring bird of mythology who rises from the ashes. Because, yes, it certainly seemed Mirotic was done.

“I feel it is my time now,” said Mirotic. “It’s never (too) late to change things. This is what we talked about at the beginning of the season, beating good teams. We are playing great. It is a great feeling. I feel like my long shot has been great lately. I have also been making shots that are not threes. I have been making shots off the dribble, and running the floor. Rondo has been finding me every single time. It is a good feeling being an important part of the team. Some players maybe need more time to be consistent. I feel it’s my time to make things right and I want to enjoy the baskets; happy to be here and want to be in the playoffs".

That’s another no one could have predicted, but there seems little to expect or understand with this Bulls team.

It sent James almost running from the United Center in a rare, certainly for him, quick exit.

LeBron running away? From the Bulls? If only.

Longtime Cavs observers said they’d never seen James, who had 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, speak to reporters so quickly after the game and then leave even before the coach finished talking. James had brief comments for the media. Kevin Love was in foul trouble and had eight points and 10 rebounds, but the highest minus rating on the team. Kyrie Irving had 20 points, but Rondo chased him into seven of 20 shooting. Irving also rarely has assists and was fourth among the Cavs starters with three.

The Cavs have lost 10 of their last 16 and five of their last seven to fall just behind Boston at the top of the East. Certainly, there’s time to recover. But you don’t see championship teams unable to get up for games they need, even for their own confidence. The Cavs even had two off days coming in and had team meetings before and after the game, reported Cleveland media.

“Just in a bad spot right now,” said James evenly. “I’m not disappointed with the effort; just in a bad spot. We need to figure it out.Rondo was breaking our defense down a lot. We also let Niko get his comfort threes. We talked about it, the coaches told us, and we didn’t get to him. So it wasn’t on the coaches, it was all on us. I think the effort was there. I just don’t think the concentration to close the 48 minutes is there yet. Which is unfortunate. It’s all part of the process. That’s what I live by; that’s how I built my career. Tomorrow is another day, another opportunity. But we have a lot of work to do and we don’t have a lot of time.”

They’re not the Bulls problem anymore, though if the Bulls can find a way into the playoffs, they could meet again with the Cavs no longer the lock for the No. 1 seed everyone expected. The Bulls remain a game behind the Heat and Pacers for the last playoff spots, but own tiebreakers. Detroit is a game and a half behind the Bulls.

The Bulls Saturday face Atlanta, which is 3-0 over the Bulls. The last time they played, of course, was the famous late game meltdown and lost 10 point lead in a few minutes that promoted Dwyane Wade to call everyone out, Butler to join in, Rondo to respond, a team meeting to call Wade out and then fines, benchings and oh so much drama. It seemed the end of the season as the Bulls lost 11 of the next 19 through that Boston massacre. But then Rondo got back into the starting lineup, Wade went out for the season, Mirotic got back into the starting lineup and it’s not like anyone mistook the Bulls for the Warriors. But the Bulls began to average close to 30 assists per game, began to spread the court and make threes, now five straight games with at least 10 and seven of the last nine. And they’ve found their brutish side again, averaging 50 rebounds the last two games after being outrebounded the previous four.

“We were very physical in the third quarter,” said Mirotic. “We made some open threes. Rajon was finding the guys. Denzel came in from the bench and made some important threes. We were all on the same page. We knew we needed to play defense and be there on the boards. All of those things were important.”

It was an early Bulls 11-0 third quarter run started with a Mirotic three, a Rondo lob to Butler and Rondo floater that gave the Bulls their first lead at 56-55 since early in the game. James was determined and serious and bulled his way to the basket. But his three-point shooting was awful, and the Bulls were prepared, not so much overcommitting to James but also running the Cavs off the three-point line. Rondo credited the game plan of assistant Mike Wilhelm.

“We shot the ball 34 percent at halftime and we knew if we continue to shoot the ball it would go in,” said Rondo. “We needed a win, wanted to win and no matter what happened try to stay together in adversity. They made their run and we stayed together, made tough shots and rebounded the basketball. Coach Mike had the scouting report; he deserves a raise.”

The Cavs grabbed the lead back at 66-60 on an Irving three. But Robin Lopez with 10 points and 11 rebounds got going over Tristan Thompson as the Cavs play small and then Mirotic fired in back to back threes. He’s not even taking much time, but balanced and sure, squaring up, not hesitating or trying to trick the officials into fouls. He added a few driving layups that made him look more like a guard. Valentine had 12 points and his three to close the third gave the Bulls a 78-71 lead after a 15-2 run on top of the 11-0.

“He (Mirotic) is opening things up for everyone out there,” noted Hoiberg.

The Bulls closed that 15-2 run with a Rondo drive. The way was opened when the Cavs followed Mirotic cutting away from the ball and opening a lane to the basket for Rondo.

Rondo also was all over the floor, getting deflections, loose balls. The Cavs opened the fourth quickly, trimming the Bulls lead to 78-76. It wasn’t all pretty as Paul Zipser had a dreadful game and Michael Carter-Williams couldn’t finish drives. Cristiano Felicio was available from his back injury, but did not play. But Bobby Portis had two huge putbacks for scores when the Cavs were making their run to start the fourth. The Bulls had a 21-9 lead on second chance points.

Hoiberg kept Butler in to start the fourth and he started his own 7-5 run with a three for an 88-78 Bulls lead after the two Portis baskets. The Bulls bench had a 25-12 edge. The Cavs tried to find threes, but the Bulls gave few clear views and there was no LeBron magic to pull out this one.

“We need to go step by step,” said Mirotic. “(We) have had trouble playing against them (Atlanta) the last two years, but now it is our moment. We need to step up and prove to everyone we are ready because we are playing great against good teams and we need to find a way to play the rest of the games like that. I am sure we will play great against Atlanta.”

Can’t doubt him these days.