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Fred Hoiberg denies playing mind games with Nikola Mirotic

Fred Hoiberg really isn’t into playing mind games.

It’s never really been his coaching style, and he wasn’t going to start now with Nikola Mirotic.

So when he benched the third-year player in back-to-back losses to Milwaukee two weeks ago, the purpose wasn’t to light a fire under the underachieving Mirotic. But if lighting a fire happened to be one of the outcomes, so be it.

“The big thing was I felt we needed a change, and that was the reason we went the other direction,’’ Hoiberg said on Wednesday. “And again, Niko took it the right way. He handled it properly. He got himself into the gym early the next morning, working on his game, and like I said, had a great practice, and has been the first guy [in the gym] really ever since. He was in early again [Tuesday] on our off day, so yeah, he handled it the right way and got himself back into the rotation.’’

Mirotic has done more than just that. He’s again made himself useable off the Bulls bench, which wasn’t the case far too often at the start of the month.

Since that benching, Mirotic has scored double-digits in all six games he’s played in, even closing out the fourth in the win over Indiana on Monday.

Hoiberg’s hope is that Mirotic not only found his confidence once again, but understands how to keep it from game to game.

“I didn’t have an exact number on how long [the benching was] going to be,’’ Hoiberg said. “We felt after a couple days, and we had a great opportunity to practice before that Detroit game. It’s been pretty documented how that practice was and Niko was one of our best performers in that practice. So I put him back in the rotation that next game. It wasn’t something when the day it happened, I said it would be two games, three games, eight games, 10 games. We felt it was the right time to get him back in the lineup and he has been playing very well since.’’

Even on the defensive end.

“Trying to be more aggressive defensively,’’ Mirotic said, when asked about his new-found confidence. “I’m learning. I know that’s one area that I can improve a lot because I’m not an expert. The same way I’ve been more aggressive on offense, I can be more aggressive on defense.’’

Youth movement

In a radio interview on The Score conducted on Christmas Day, VP of basketball operations John Paxson mentioned looking to play the younger guys more minutes later in the year.

Whether he meant that as a plan or just in case things go poorly was unclear, but it sounded like news to Hoiberg based on his reaction to it.

“We’ll see how this progresses, but right now the most important game for me [was Brooklyn],’’ Hoiberg said. “We’ll worry about Indiana on Friday and then move onto Milwaukee. But that’s our job right now, to put a gameplan together for the next one.’’

Asked if he had that conversation with Paxson, he responded, “No, we have not had that conversation.’’