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By Sam Smith | 3.19.2015 | 2:09 a.m. CT
Nikola Mirotic, who patiently did interviews for about a half hour in three languages Wednesday following the Bulls 103-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers, doesn’t always find the appropriate English word for the media.
It seemed so when Mirotic was asked to discuss leading the Bulls in scoring yet again, this time with 25 points, 20 in the second half when the Bulls would never let the Pacers retake any control of the game thanks to Mirotic’s play.
“I’m playing now more minutes, so I am playing more relaxed,” said Mirotic, averaging 20.8 points and 8.3 rebounds this month with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler still out injured. “My teammates, they are really trying to find me and the coach, he is trusting me. I think I am not shooting really well right now. But the important thing is I am making important shots, especially in the last quarter. I am trying to help my team. Right now I am going through a really beautiful moment.”
It perhaps was a more poetic than prosaic, but Mirotic got it right.
These are beautiful moments for the talented rookie and for the Bulls because of their talented rookie.
“He’s spectacular,” raved Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “And not just in the second half. He gives us a lot of problems. Coach Thibs does a good job using him in different ways, puts him in situations that are unique for power forwards to guard. He is a threat at the three point line, he is great off the bounce and he is great at his cutting game. He is a heck of a weapon off the bench. We clearly did not do a good enough job on him.”
There were plenty of good things for the Bulls Wednesday against a charging Pacers team, winners of 13 of their last 17 before Wednesday. They fell to 30-37 in their quest for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls, losers of six of seven coming in, moved to 41-28, a half game behind third place Toronto, who is in the United Center Friday. Washington, fifth in the Eastern Conference, is a half game behind the Bulls.
“We’ve got a lot going on, this playoff race, guys coming back,” agreed Mike Dunleavy, who got the Bulls off to a good start with 19 first half points in a 51-41 halftime lead, and 21 points for the game. “The biggest thing now is concentrating on ourselves and playing good basketball. We want to be playing really well going down the stretch and in the playoffs. And then the (playoff) seeds will take care of themselves.”
The Bulls figure to have their three injured players back well before them, especially Butler and Gibson, who could return this weekend or early next week.
So it was a good bounce back victory as the Bulls led pretty much the entire game. They got 19 points and 12 rebounds from Pau Gasol for his league leading 45th double/double; 14 points and eight rebounds from Tony Snell; and seven assists and 14 rebounds from Joakim Noah. The rebounds were vital after the Bulls were overwhelmed on the boards the last two games. They came back to dominate Indiana, fifth in the league in rebounding, 52-38 on the boards and 11-2 in second chance points.
“We had a good (rebounding) mentality going into the game,” said Noah, who was beaming afterward and proudly displaying in his locker his league monthly Community Assist award presented pregame. “It was everybody (on the boards). Snelly rebounded really well, Dun Dun; everyone came in and rebounded well. We knew it was going to be a team effort. It’s always an emphasis.”
And yet again the emphasis was on the play of the gangly rookie from Montenegro by way of the Spanish league who is becoming an NBA sensation and strong contender for Rookie of the Year. Forget rookies; Mirotic’s bench scoring leads all NBA reserves for the month while he’s coming off a 17-point fourth quarter as the Bulls fell just short Sunday in Oklahoma City. He’s also the Bulls most aggressive to the basket averaging more than six free throws per game this month.
Mirotic isn’t the leading rookie in any of the major statistical categories other than free throw shooting at about 80 percent. He is tied for second in scoring at 9.2 behind Andrew Wiggins. He is fourth in rebounding, fifth in blocks and 10th in assists. But he’s probably about to get his second rookie of the month award in the last four months. And Mirotic is the only rookie contender even remotely playing a pivotal role in meaningful games for a playoff team.
And without the least bit of hesitation or apprehension, especially for a rookie.
With Indiana threatening after the Bulls had a 13-point lead midway through the third quarter, it now becoming 64-61, Mirotic came through on an assortment of scoring plays as he beat the tough David West off the dribble, rolled to the rim and took a pass from Dunleavy and pulled up for a three. He scored 10 of the Bulls last 12 points of the third quarter to give the Bulls a 76-68 lead after three.
“When I was playing in Madrid I took a lot of important shots playing important minutes, a lot of finals,” said Mirotic, who was Spanish league MVP in 2013 and played in multiple Spanish league championships. “I don’t feel this pressure playing last minutes. I believe if they make some plays for you, you need to be positive and say ‘OK, they believe in me, I believe in myself, too, I am going to make this shot.’ This is what happened. I am making these shots in the fourth quarter. Really happy because I think it’s important; maybe not always with rookies. Trying to be focused because this is just one small part of my basketball.”
With Gibson out, Mirotic has moved comfortably into the stretch four role, a position the Bulls never really have had and adds an unusual dimension to their often stagnant offense without Rose. Though the concern with Mirotic was defense, even Noah Wednesday commended Mirotic and said Mirotic played a “great defensive game.”
But it’s offense the Bulls most need with 50 points sitting on the bench injured. And Mirotic has responded as few expected or anticipated. Except perhaps for Mirotic.
“I know right now this is not the playoffs; it’s regular season,” noted Mirotic, who not only has wonderful perspective and understanding, but in multiple languages. “Of course, it is not easy to score 20 points against these teams being a rookie. But when you are playing more minutes, when your team trusts in you, it’s a little bit easier. So you get confidence taking more shots and that’s what I am doing now. I knew for me it is never going to be a problem offense; the offense is going well, could be better. What I am trying now is to be better in my defense.
“It is a big adjustment,” Mirotic agreed about being a rookie and in a new country. “A lot of games, of course, and playing the big teams, a lot of pressure, too. But when I came here they (were) patient with me; trust I am going to grow as a player. So my chance right now is here, playing more minutes. I knew I can play in the NBA; that’s why I came here this year. Because I was feeling ready to play. Of course, I have to improve on a lot of things. But I think right now I am showing I am ready and just trying to help my team get more wins.”
It is impressive to watch as it was Mirotic rolling right into the fourth quarter carrying the offense once again.
After Dunleavy opened the fourth with a driving score on another Noah pass, Mirotic made a tough driving bank shot for an 80-70 Bulls lead. Out on the right wing with the ball, the defender backed off and Mirotic sunk a long two for an 82-70 lead and Pacers’ timeout.
Though Mirotic does have much more game than being a shooter. He came advertised as a spot up shooter. But he’s shown regularly an ability to put the ball on the floor and drive, though sometimes trying to do too much and losing control. But he doesn’t hesitate or lose confidence when he commits turnovers. And for a rookie he has amazing respect from officials. He’ll come right back to make plays, which is the sign of a potential star. You never know that about a player until you see if he’ll do it against the highest level of competition.
Mirotic also is tough. He’s a very good defensive rebounder and he attacks the basket probably more aggressively than everyone on the team but Rose. Mirotic also is excellent at taking the ball off the backboard and dribbling out to start a fast break, which the Bulls need to do more and finally did early in the game.
It was no coincidence they opened the game with four empty possessions running set plays and the clock down and forcing shots. Then they made three straight three pointers, two from Dunleavy in transition and another later in the quarter as the Bulls would not permit the Pacers to settle into their half court defense. Mirotic is one of the best the Bulls have now firing out of the backcourt with the ball or passing up court, which the offense doesn’t do nearly enough.
The Bulls have had several games in this recent poor stretch allowing big leads disintegrate. But after a Snell floater as the guards led by Snell did come back to rebound this time, Mirotic scored on a back door cut with a Kirk Hinrich pass for an 86-74 lead. Former Bull C.J. Watson caused some here-we-go-again home crowd unease with a pair of threes. But Hinrich followed with a three and Mirotic was fouled on a backdoor cut again, this time with a Noah pass. Mirotic made both for a 91-80 Bulls lead with 5:39 remaining to end the scare.
Aaron Brooks closed it out with drives for fouls while Gasol added a three, his 10th in 20 attempts this season as the Bulls had a rare easy close in this shorthanded stretch.
“(Rebounding) always is an emphasis of ours,” noted Dunleavy “It slipped the last couple of games, but tonight we felt if we could win the rebounding battle we’d win the game. And we did. Mirotic is a big weapon for us coming in off the bench. He’s a matchup problem for guys; there are not a lot of fours in the league who can guard him. You’ve got to come out on the perimeter and challenge his threes and he can put it on the floor and finish. He’s a big weapon for us and his play of late has been great.”
Which, of course, raises that bull in the room question:
“He’s done a great job taking advantage of the opportunities,” Gasol agreed about Mirotic. “When he’s gotten the opportunities he’s played at a pretty high level. Lately it’s been at a very high level. Once we get everyone back, and hopefully we stay healthy, the coaching staff has to figure how to make sure they take advantage of the players that are playing at a high level.”
This is not a bad problem to have.
But the last time Mirotic had that big run in December, which included 27 points in a win over Memphis and 15 in a win over Portland—he is even better against top opponents with 23 and 26 in consecutive games this month in wins over Washington and Oklahoma City—his playing time diminished greatly in January.
That can’t happen again. He’s playing too well, and his scoring is valuable. His main flaw has been three point shooting of about 27 percent this month. But without Rose, he’s had to create so many of his own shots. Imagine if he had room on drive and kick plays for shots? After all, he was known as a three-point specialist in Europe.
The Bulls may have a great one.
“For me the most important was this victory today,” said Mirotic, who always talks team first. “Especially playing at home after a tough loss. Right now this is my role, playing more minutes because some people are not playing. Playing 30 minutes is amazing for me right now; I really appreciate that confidence from my teammates, my coach. Because a couple of weeks I was not playing a lot; I was there trying to be really positive, working hard every day.
“Right now this is my chance to show what I can do; I don’t want to stop,” said Mirotic. “I want to keep building, keep working hard. Because I know I can play much better. I am working a lot on my body and my strength to be stronger, especially on playing defense in the low post, control more rebounding. Like I say, I am not shooting well, but I am running the floor, I am getting more rebounding. I am showing I am not just a shooter. I can play pick and roll. A lot of time I am playing with Joakim, playing handoffs. This adjustment, learning these teams like Indiana, knowing how they play, (Luis) Scola and West; it’s more experience, too.
“A lot of games, 82 games, playing maybe four in five days, you need to be ready,” Mirotic agreed about playing in the NBA. “I am learning every day. It’s really fun, too. I really am going through a beautiful moment.”
So are the Bulls. Can you believe how good this guy is becoming?