The ever-changing Bulls rotation has new life for Nikola Mirotic

Nikola Mirotic’s 29 minutes of playing time Monday came as a surprise, especially to Mirotic.

With good reason.

He didn’t play in the March 8 loss to the Magic or two days later against the Rockets. And then before the Bulls’ embarrassing loss Sunday to the Celtics, Mirotic was made inactive.

No wonder he felt his days with the team were all but done.

“This season has been hard,’’ Mirotic said before the loss to the Celtics. “It’s been very difficult for me to find a way to enjoy the game. There are a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is me, too. I understand that.’’

With his upcoming free agency and the Bulls in a youth movement, he figured he was just a scrimmage body for the last four weeks of the regular season.

Mirotic didn’t take into account the fluidity of the Bulls’ rotation.

Not only was he back in against the Hornets — scoring 24 points — but Rajon Rondo returned to the starting lineup for the first time since losing his spot in late December, and former starting point guard Jerian Grant didn’t play.

Confusing?

Nah, it’s just the state of the Bulls these days as they try to walk an almost impossible line of developing younger players and making a run at a postseason berth.

Besides the latest decisions on Mirotic, Rondo and Grant in the Hornets game, coach Fred Hoiberg also seemed to tighten the rotation, sitting Paul Zipser and Michael Carter-Williams and limiting the minutes for Joffrey Lauvergne (three) and newly acquired point guard Cameron Payne (11).

The new look snapped a five-game skid, but Hoiberg still wouldn’t show his hand.

“We’ll see how it all plays out,’’ Hoiberg said. “A lot of it will depend on how the flow of the game is going, how guys are playing. We’ll see who has it going on a certain night, and we’ll roll with those guys.’’

That was fine with Mirotic, who was just glad to have an opportunity again.

“It means a lot,’’ Mirotic said of his performance. “I was inactive [Sunday], and I didn’t play the last three games. Coach wanted me to be ready, so I’ve been working by myself in the weight room, extra shooting, and really came to the game with a lot of energy. And I was very positive.’’

He had some help.

“Me and Jimmy [Butler] talked to Niko before the game and told him we need him,’’ Dwyane Wade said. “We’re not going to make the playoffs without him, and we just want to let him know that we need his focus, we need his ability to shoot the ball.

“And I think getting that confidence and then going out there, he came right in the game firing it up. We need that. We won’t make the playoffs without Niko playing good basketball. Will he get 24 every night? No, but just his ability to be on the floor and make shots, it’s huge for our team.’’

Huge for Mirotic, as well.

While he might not be in the Bulls’ future plans, the 6-10 former Spanish-league standout still has a future in the NBA when the market opens up this summer.

That’s his approach these days. If Mirotic can help the Bulls make the playoffs, great. But this is an audition for his next team, as well.

“Obviously, I was not happy with situation,’’ Mirotic said. “Nobody is happy sitting on the bench and not playing, and I was, too. But, like I said, there’s not too much I could do. Just work on myself, be ready, and the chance came. Try to prove it. I want to forget about this game as quick as I can because I want to stay ready, stay aggressive.’’

Hoiberg did indicate that players with the hot hand will continue to get playing time, but the players realize that could change quickly.

“This group inside this locker room has been great with everything, as much as you can,’’ Wade said of the ever-changing lineups. “It’s been a good showcase of everybody sticking together.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.
Email: jcowley@suntimes.com


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