Mirotic makes surprise return in Bulls’ win

SHARE Mirotic makes surprise return in Bulls’ win

Nikola Mirotic boxes out the Rockets’ Trevor Ariza on a free throw in his first game back. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Saturday, the Bulls got healthy.

Jimmy Butler (knee) and Taj Gibson (hamstring) already were scheduled to play against the Rockets. Nikola Mirotic, who last played on Jan. 25, was a surprise returnee.

Mirotic (appendicitis), who had been sidelined by two surgeries, only had returned to practice on Friday.

After feeling good in noncontact drills, Mirotic decided to see how he fared in the full practice.

“He made it through full contact [on Friday], and he [wanted] to give it a go,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said before the game. “He took a charge — it might be the first one in his life — and he felt great [Saturday]. So the doctors were comfortable with him giving it a shot.’’

After a quiet first half (no points in four minutes), Mirotic was active in the second half, when he made two three-pointers and finished with seven points.

The trio of returnees leaves only one sidelined Bull — Joakim Noah, who’s out with season-ending shoulder surgery.

Taj was antsy

Although Gibson was listed as questionable, he said there was no way he was going to miss the game against the Rockets, not after squirming while watching the Bulls’ road loss Wednesday against the Magic.

“I told them, ‘I’m going to try to play, no matter what,’ ’’ Gibson said. “We can’t just try to rest right now. We’re competing for a playoff spot. When you go home, you can rest all you want. But right now, it’s about the team, team first, try to get some wins.’’

Gibson, who had not missed a game until Wednesday, said the Bulls’ defensive struggles made him determined to suit up quickly.

“It was rough to see the last game,’’ Gibson said. “You’ve got to get back to the basics. It will be fun having [Butler] back out there. But we have to put the effort out there, have to come out with the right mindset.’’

Butler wants defense

Like Gibson, Butler was excited about the opportunity to help the Bulls, who were 3-8 while he was sidelined, get back on track and secure a playoff berth.

“Very frustrating [to be out],’’ he said. “But I don’t think we’ve been playing defense all year. I think we just outscore opponents a lot of the times. We’re a talented group of guys, but not that talented to outscore everybody every night. Obviously, we’ve got to guard. We’ve been saying that all year. I know you [media] guys have heard it a million times. Hopefully, I can help.’’

Hoiberg ‘feels good’

Bolstered by all the returning players, Hoiberg is feeling relieved and is determined to restore defense and success to a struggling team.

“It feels good,’’ Hoiberg said. “We just have to get those guys integrated into how we’re trying to play. Jimmy obviously gives us a great presence out there, and he’s going to bring guys with him. He gives us a guy on the wing who can defend the elite players in the league.’’

This and that

Hoiberg’s distinction as the only NBA coach without a technical this season seemed in danger in the second quarter.

But the officials announced they were teeing up a Bulls assistant for giving an unwanted opinion.

• The Bulls’ starting five of Derrick Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Gibson and Pau Gasol was their 16th different lineup. This was the first time Butler and Dunleavy were on the floor together this season.

• Bulls players have missed 142 games to illness or injury this season. Last season, they missed 148.

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould.

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