Nikola Mirotic goes up against the Milwaukee Bucks

Bulls stay hot with win over Bucks, 115-109

Bulls Win 5th Straight Over Milwaukee

Two of their best players still are not speaking, at least off the court. They’re having one of their smallest players defend the biggest and most dynamic guy on the other team. In a season dedicated to losing, the Bulls Friday with their fifth consecutive victory, 115-109 against the Milwaukee Bucks, set an NBA record for success, the longest winning streak after a double digit losing streak.

What the heck is going on here?

"I thought Bobby was the difference in getting that game turned around," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "It was a really good, gritty win and I saw a lot of growth in our guys having to go out there with three or four of our guys with blood on their uniforms; I loved it. we were sluggish and Bobby took the lid off the rim for us to get us back in that game; then fourth quarter Bobby is another guy who plays with no fear out there; made a couple of big plays out there, had some really good finishes at the basket. Niko’s made big plays really in all of (the five wins) for us. He and Bobby, those two guys play off each other very well."

When Mirotic was talking about it being "crazy," he was referring to the paradox of he and Portis, the principals in the ugly preseason fight that left the team reeling with suspensions, injury and recriminations, being the fulcrum for the team’s recent bewildering success.

They combined Friday for five of the team’s eight three pointers, 20 of the 50 rebounds that helped dominate Milwaukee on the boards and a combined 16 for 32 shooting.

Robin Lopez added 18 points and eight rebounds, Kris Dunn had another sharp game with 17 points, seven assists and two steals and David Nwaba, the surprise hero, added 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals.

And most of all for Nwaba perhaps the best defensive job on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo that any player has done this season, and even giving up a half foot. Antetokounmpo did have 29 points to match Khris Middleton. But in the fourth quarter when the Bucks went small with Antetokounmpo at center—or wherever he felt like playing—Nwaba almost shut out the budding superstar. Antetokounmpo got off just two shots and had four points with Nwaba fronting him, pressuring him, fighting off screens and body blocks to thwart the Bucks’ offense, Antetokounmpo finally settling for an unsettling late three.

"We felt David was the only guy that even had a chance of slowing Giannis down," said Hoiberg. "David’s a fullback out there."

David Nwaba with the layup attempt at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 15th, 2017.

Hoiberg, for his part, has been a master tactician with adjustments and innovations in this winning streak, and he surprised the Bucks by starting Nwaba in the second half for Denzel Valentine and substituting him whenever Antetokounmpo came and went.

"That’s how I got into this league, playing defense. So I try to showcase that every opportunity I get,” said Nwaba. “I enjoy guarding the toughest players on the court, seeing what I can bring and enjoying the opportunity. I wanted to guard him so I’m glad it worked out."

This winning streak is impressive, especially with rookie star Lauri Markkanen missing his third consecutive game with back spasms. Hoiberg said it’s more precautionary at this time and hopes for Markkanen to play Monday against the 76ers.

But does anyone dare break up the Ports and Mirotic tandem?

Yes, you might say someone should have two months ago, and maybe you can finally joke a little bit about that horrific moment.

Neither cares to talk about it, and it is becoming tiresome given the play of both, which coincidently, is the best of their careers for both.

"Me and Niko don’t really care about that situation anymore," said Portis, playing with a right eye as red and bloody as the old Bulls road uniforms.

Everything is the team. We’re professionals, we’re basketball players and this is our job. We have to come in every day and find a way to make it work and I feel like we’ve done it to this point. It’s been fun playing with Niko. He’s a hell of a player. He’s been playing out of his mind since he’s been back. I’m happy for him; I’m happy to have him back.

Bobby Portis

"We’re not worried about that (relationship off the court); we’re just here to play basketball and do our jobs," said Portis, who added he’s neither in pain from his eye problem or having vision problems. "We lost 10 straight games, there was a big cloud on our shoulders. Now happy to see everyone around here happy and real giddy; it’s been the great to see us win some."

Portis did concede if he’d heard about a similar incident on another team he would not have imagined it would have turned out like it has thus far with the Bulls. A lot of credit goes to Mirotic, who continued with his light hearted banter with media and predictions, though game by game now. He demurred about a suggestion he and Portis should sit down for a beer summit, though he did credit reporters for his reduction in his former pump fake routine.

Bobby Portis goes for the dunk against Milwaukee on December 15th, 2017.

Asked about his lack of hesitation with his shot in his return, Mirotic said, "Because you’ve been killing me the last couple of years, like pump fake, pump fake, pump fake. So no more; maybe once in awhile now. You guys are sometimes right."

Mirotic has been an unwavering delight in his return when most people likely would not have been. He’s demonstrated admirable professionalism and class, and, more importantly for the team, has been a clutch performer; dare we say closer? Perhaps not yet, but he’s been there with big plays virtually every game in his return. Even more so, like against the Bucks, Portis and Mirotic were the more physical interior players, and, of course, with Lopez.

"We did play last year a little bit together, but it was not the same like now," Mirotic acknowledged. "I think we both stepped up. I think we learned how to play with each other and we need to give credit to Fred for that. Fred is the one putting us in the right spots. Right now we are both playing a lot of minutes together and it’s working; the team is playing well. From my side, I wish we continue to do what is best for the team."

Hoiberg shouldn’t go without a lot of credit in all of this. He navigated a potentially perilous personnel and personal circumstance with finesse and decency that many NBA coaches would lack. Plus, his game management has been superlative.

"I credit coach Hoiberg for putting us in a good position in the game," added Portis as both he and Mirotic tend to congratulate Hoiberg after almost every win lately. Portis and Mirotic have been able to be that threat Hoiberg always talked about in the game he wanted to play for a much swifter and enjoyable game. Plus, Hoiberg sprung double team defensive blitzes on the Bucks, usually with Portis, thwarting the Bucks several times.

"We’re all playing for each other and as team that’s big because I feel like our unity is at an all-time high," said Portis. “I think our team is finally finding our groove, playing together, moving the ball. The ball is not sticking with one person; it’s been fun to see the ball moving."

It’s an extraordinary and surely unanticipated series of events as the Bulls after a slow start Friday, trailing 16-6 hit the Bucks with a 20-6 run to lead 33-30 after one quarter. It looked like Mirotic’s run was over with two quick fouls and three misses.

"I tell myself, 'Don’t worry Niko, just when you are back, play together and play simple,'" Mirotic related. "My shot was not going; try to make the extra pass. After my shot was coming, Fred tried to find me. I’m proud of the team because we are finding a way to finish games we did not before; we are finding the right guy and right moment and sharing the ball. We are just enjoying our game right now and we cannot be satisfied."

Niko Mirotic with a shot over Milwaukee on December 15th, 2017.

The tug-of-war continued in a game with more than 30 lead changes and ties for a 59-58 Bulls halftime lead after the Bucks went up six late in the second quarter. With Dunn’s shooting and Nwaba’s driving, the Bulls took a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter and were tied at 82 after three as Lopez dominating inside matched the Bucks late third quarter run. The home team was in position. And opened the fourth quarter taking an 87-84 lead.

But first came Portis with power moves inside for scores, bumping Bucks aside like early hunting season. Portis then added a post up jumper and an 18 footer on yet another slick Dunn drive and pass for a 98-95 Bulls lead with 5:51 left.

The Bucks took back the lead 100-98 on a Middleton drive and you figured the Bulls had made their run. Then Dunn was pivotal with a driving score for a three-point play and penetration that led to Portis being fouled for free throws (the Bulls, however, missed 12 from the line) and then Dunn getting deep into the paint and passing out for the Mirotic three with 2:42 left for the 109-104 lead. The Bulls escaped an open Rashad Vaughn three and an ill-conceived Antetokounmpo three, the Bucks star apparently tired of trying to fight Nwaba for inside space.

And then came the clincher, Justin Holiday spotting a slashing Mirotic with 1:07 left and Mirotic delivering the knockout punch. After a month, it’s probably OK to write that. Especially in a five-game winning streak in large part on Mirotic’s shoulders. Though we are too lazy with those combat allusions. Though this Bulls team is fighting now. OK, enough.

"It was learning process and now we are finding the way how to play," said Mirotic. "We are playing with patience, great pace when we need to do that and enjoying the basketball."

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