Bulls’ red-hot Nikola Mirotic finally getting hang of defense

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The crowd of reporters gathered around Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic’s locker wasn’t going anywhere.

Mirotic walked in, toweled off the lingering wetness on his beard and worked his way through the media with an exhausted look on his face.

‘‘Niko again?’’ he said, plopping down into his chair.

Yes, Niko again.

Getting used to an 82-game NBA regular season has been difficult enough for Mirotic, who joined the Bulls from the Spanish league last offseason. But he also has emerged as a go-to media darling because of his hot play in March.

‘‘A little bit tired because I never played like this before,’’ Mirotic said when he was asked how he was holding up through the final few weeks of the regular season. ‘‘I’m playing in all the games. I’m playing plus-30 minutes, and it’s a great feeling. This is the adjustment for me, too. I’m working hard to stay out there, especially mentally. I know if I’m mentally good, then I can push myself and play good basketball.’’

Good basketball is an understatement. Before a subpar eight-point effort in 24 minutes in a road loss Saturday to the Detroit Pistons, there has been no better Bulls player than Mirotic since the calendar flipped to March. Heck, there haven’t been many forwards in the NBA better than Mirotic the last three weeks.

In his last 12 games, Mirotic has averaged 20.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and, perhaps the biggest attention-getter as far as coach Tom Thibodeau is concerned, 1.3 blocks in 31.4 minutes.

Yes, Mirotic finally has started to figure out things on defense.

‘‘He’s been real aggressive in practice for, like, the last few months,’’ teammate Taj Gibson said of Mirotic’s improving defense. ‘‘We’ve been seeing it for a while, but now everyone gets to see it.’’

In addition to some injuries in the frontcourt, those defensive improvements have punched Mirotic’s ticket to extended playing time.

‘‘[I’m] understanding more of Thibodeau’s system, what they ask from me,’’ he said. ‘‘I think being here six months, I understand a little bit more of how they’re playing.

‘‘I need to communicate better on defense, I need to trust in my teammates and I’m working hard to especially improve on defense because I know the offense is no problem. . . . I’m working on that, trying to help my teammates, and I think I took a step, but it’s not enough. I need to work more.’’

In the first half of the season, Mirotic struggled with his footwork and with the positioning of his hands on defense. It also took him some time to understand the tendencies of the opponent. That combination often led to quick fouls and an early hook.

Now, though, Mirotic has a better sense of the league because he has played in it and has made it a habit to study film. He not only has a better feel of what he wants to do on defense, but he also knows what defenders are trying to do to him.

‘‘I’ve made some changes and made adjustments, but I’m working hard to help the team most of all,’’ Mirotic said.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops

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