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By Sam Smith | 3.24.2015 | 1:22 a.m. CT
So who is this guy, this Nikola Mirotic, who basically has saved the Bulls for the last month? Enough so they’ve remained in place, playing around .500 ball with Taj Gibson returning last week from injury and Jimmy Butler Monday in the Bulls 98-86 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
The Bulls officially clinched a playoff spot and at 43-29 moved into an effective tie with Toronto, whom they visit Wednesday, for third in the Eastern Conference. They did so with 28 points and eight rebounds from Mirotic, including 14 fourth quarter points, and 27 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks from Pau Gasol. And it was Gasol and Mirotic, the Boys from Abroad, who combined for the play of the night, if not the season. Gasol rebounded a Mirotic miss and then Mirotic following his shot (fundamentals, too!) cut to the basket, where Gasol handed off and Mirotic threw down a freakish and frightful slam dunk over Jason Maxiell to effectively clinch the victory at 90-82 with about two minutes remaining.
“Dude can play,” admired Butler, who had 19 points and nine rebounds in his return after missing 11 games with an elbow injury. “He’s basically carried us this month, to tell you the truth. He’s confident. I think he’s only going to continue to get better because he’s always in the gym working on his game and it shows.
“I knew it was just a matter of time before he got that confidence in the game,” said Butler. “He just starts playing and not looking over his shoulder.”
It really is one of the more amazing stories of the season, this 6-10 rookie playing in Spain who could barely speak English last summer among the NBA league leaders in fourth quarter scoring this month, averaging 21 points and 8.2 rebounds in March with seven games scoring at least 23 points against the bitter competition of a playoff race. There’s 17 points in the fourth quarter against the Thunder; 10 in the fourth quarter in a win over the Pacers the next game. There was 14 in the fourth quarter earlier this month against Oklahoma City; in two games against the hottest player in the NBA, Mirotic outscored Russell Westbrook 31-21; 10 in the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies, 13 in the fourth quarter against the Spurs. A team high nine in the fourth last week when the Bulls defeated the Raptors along with three blocks. A team high eight in the fourth quarter when the Bulls defeated the Wizards the first week of the month; 16 in the fourth quarter against the Clippers.
Who is this guy?
Is this Dirk Nowitki? Tom Chambers? Cliff Robinson? Bob McAdoo?
You see elements of all these current and former NBA stars, excellent long distance shooting but also with toughness, an ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket and take the hit, finish and make the spectacular and clutch play.
Because the Hornets, who are in a competitive race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and had beaten the Bulls two of three this season, were making it difficult. Kemba Walker was slicing up the backcourt for 29 points and the mini Hornets were outrebounding the Bulls 51-46. There were 12 lead changes and eight ties and the Hornets let midway through the third quarter. They were within 78-75 with 8:17 left in the game when Mirotic went around a Gibson screen and split two defenders to finish a layup for an 80-75 Bulls lead with 8:01 left.
Then after a Hornets free throw, Mirotic with the shot clock about to expire faded and made a 22 footer over Marvin Williams, and off the wrong foot like Nowitzki to put the Bulls ahead 84-76. Butler with a baseline jumper matched a pair of Hornets free throws before the Hornets again beat the Bulls to an offensive rebound and Mo Williams was fouled shooting a three. Charlotte was within 86-82 with 3:57 remaining. Game on.
The Bulls survived with defense as the Hornets missed a three to get within one and then the follow. Gasol missed on a drive, but then the Hornets again missed a jumper and the follow. Aaron Brooks, who had a good game running the team with 13 points and 10 assists, in transition found Mirotic on the left wing for a three to make it 89-82 Bulls with 2:33 left. Mirotic, who had been calling for the ball as he ran up court, squared and as the ball went through pumped his fists and signaled three to the exuberant crowd.
Joakim Noah, who was sitting out the game with general soreness but expected to play Wednesday in Toronto, was the first to meet Mirotic at the bench with a shoulder bump and high fives all around.
Then it was over when Kirk Hinrich stripped Walker and Mirotic finished the poster dunk over Maxiell. And just to make sure, Mirotic took a pass from Brooks and drove hard down the left side, finishing with a layup and fouled hard by Maxiell, who outweighs Mirotic by about 40 pounds. That play with the free throw gave the Bulls 94-82 lead with 1:27 left. Mirotic as he went down after the drive signaled victory with a pair of V signs and was helped up and given a hug by Gasol as all there was left was the cheering.
“What Niko is doing right now with this team in the situation we are in, I think, is remarkable,” said Gasol. “He’s doing great. You have to give him a lot of credit and I hope he continues to play at this level for us the rest of the way.
“This month he has been spectacular,” Gasol added. “It’s very difficult for a rookie to put up numbers like that, but obviously he has experience, has been an outstanding player for a couple of years in Europe. He is flourishing in front of us, doing a great job, great things, great poise, too. I love it and it helps us a lot.”
Mirotic left the locker room quickly, so he wasn’t available to reporters. But his game did the talking for him, as it has when he’s gotten a chance this season and especially in the past month.
“Niko has no filter,” said Brooks, which was a compliment. “He doesn’t care; he’s clutch. He’s been big for us, exactly what we’ve been needing. He’s been stepping up. You can see his progression throughout the year.”
But it was more, including Brooks, who has held down the starting point guard job competently with Derrick Rose out since late February.
His 10 assists were a season high as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau commended Brooks in starting his post game comments. “The coach complimented me?” Brooks said with a wry smile when told afterward. Brooks has this arched eye view of the NBA world as a much traveled veteran might. But his third quarter with eight points when the Hornets were buzzing around was crucial. As spectacular as some of Mirotic’s shots were, Brooks amazes as much as anyone with his spinning flips off the backboard that somehow find the net.
“It’s been a blessing to come here and play again,” said Brooks. “Just trying to make the most of the opportunity. Can’t distribute the ball without our point center in, so it was my job to distribute today.
“Probably has something to do with bowling,” he added with a smile about his twisting makes from an angles.
He mostly smiles.
“Being short all your life that’s my drill,” said Brooks. “Got to get (the shots) a little bit higher when they are taller.”
It’s been a tall order for the Bulls with Butler, Gibson and Rose out. But two have returned and Thibodeau said Rose is close to contact drills, which would precede a return. Rose could be in those scrimmages within the week. Which would again raise those possibilities that have been chased away much of this season of hardship.
“Teams that are championship contenders and want to pursue a championship… we have 10 games to go to prove how consistent we really are,” said Gasol. “See if we can get bodies back, get Jo back, get Derrick back and keep them back and the rest of us stay healthy and when things kind of click that way you can have momentum and things can turn out well. I think we are in a good position, but we have to prove a lot still because everything is so tight. When the playoffs come it will be a time to prove what we are made of and how bad we want it.”
The Bulls did a good job with a Hornets team that has been tough for them, especially Gasol early stepping outside and making jumpers over Al Jefferson for 12 first quarter points and a 28-26 lead and holding Jefferson to three points for the game.
Gasol also continued his career best with his 47th double double and added a three pointer as he’s now a remarkable 12 of 22 on the season for 54 percent from three.
“To be able to establish career highs in your 14th year in the league, I think it’s something to be proud of,” said Gasol. “I’m just happy with how things are playing out. I work on (the three) a little bit. With my national team I always shoot more threes, especially when I play with Marc. I like to mix it up. For the most part in my NBA career, I’ve always been in the post. I wasn’t too much shooting threes because that’s not what my team needed me to do. But in our offense, there are certain plays where I’m mostly in those corners and I’m shooting effectively so far. So I look forward to it, continue to get good looks. My teammates find me there. They know I’m a pretty good shooter. So far it’s been good.”
The Bulls also had a dominant 40-16 edge in inside points while holding the Hornets to 34.6 percent shooting in this up and down month for the Bulls.
“A lot of it was their defense,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “They're versatile. They have size everywhere. Basically, what they said tonight was shoot jumpers. They're going to shut down the paint. Except for Mo, make us shoot from over the top. They did a good job.”
The Hornets took a 49-48 halftime lead before Gasol and Brooks carried the Bulls through the third for a 74-69 lead. And then Mirotic with some help from Butler. Iron man Butler went just under 40 minutes and like Mirotic had 10 free throw attempts. Butler pronounced himself recovered. He wore a wrap on his left arm after the game, though he might have iced his right arm as well shooting six of 20.
“He missed a bunch of bunnies that he normally makes, so his timing is not quite there,” agreed Thibodeau. “But as the game went on he started getting into rhythm. He started drawing the contact and getting to the line and his rebounding was huge for us. Everything, his defense, too.”
As usual, Butler said it was all about the win and looking forward.
“Three weeks I was out; it’s important we win, end of story,” said Butler. “I’m a little off. It’s different when you go out and miss that much time, but I’ll get back into it. I’m glad to be back; but I’ve got to be better. I feel like I hurt us in a lot of ways tonight even though we got the win. I made a lot of mental mistakes, which can’t happen. I definitely got them up with my 20 balls; got to be aggressive, that’s what Pau told me to do. When you worry about (an injury) something tends to happen. I was just playing. Forgot all about it completely, to tell you the truth.”
So maybe the luck is changing.