The Bulls’ last game against the Pacers was memorable.
“That one was hard,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It was devastating. You could see it in guys’ faces. They were very disappointed.’’
They also were without Nikola Mirotic.
That wasn’t the case Friday.
Mirotic scored 28 points and Finnish rookie Lauri Markkanen had a career-high 32 in the Bulls’ 119-107 victory at the United Center. The Bulls (13-22) improved to 10-2 since Mirotic returned from injuries suffered in a practice altercation with Bobby Portis.
The Bulls were without red-hot point guard Kris Dunn, who was a late scratch because of patellar tendinitis. Jerian Grant got the start, but Mirotic and Markkanen stole the show.
“I was there, I was there on the bench,’’ Mirotic said, recalling the Bulls’ meltdown in Indianapolis. “We actually talked about it, and we knew we owed those guys, and [Friday] we did an amazing job. Just proud of my team, and that’s another win.’’
And another stellar performance by Mirotic, who was coming off a victory against the Knicks in which he took only four shots and had four points.
“Now it’s my moment and just feeling that I’ve been playing great,’’ Mirotic said. “I can score 20 each game, but it’s not just about scoring. It’s about winning, and that’s what makes me very happy and very confident about playing. Because the team is winning. It’s not that I’m playing good on a team that’s losing. It’s the opposite. That’s where my confidence is coming from.’’
The fourth-year forward went 3-for-4 from three-point range in just under four minutes in the first quarter to help build a 37-27 lead. By halftime, he had a team-high 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting from the field, including 5-for-8 from three-point range.
He took 20 shots, 16 of them three-pointers.
“I made eight threes, but I’m sitting here feeling like I can make more than 10, to be honest,’’ Mirotic said. “A couple of those were just in and out.’’
There was another reason behind Mirotic’s aggressive shooting.
“My son actually told me before the game, ‘Daddy, I want you to make five threes today,’ ” Mirotic said. “And I told him I would try. I can’t promise, but I made eight, actually. I’m sure he was very happy.’’
After Mirotic gave the Pacers (19-17) fits in the first half, Markkanen took over in the second half with 22 points. He shot 11-for-17 overall and 5-for-9 from three-point range.
So the team the Pacers watched crumble early in December continues to grow up.
“The beginning of the season, those were the games we were losing,’’ Denzel Valentine said. “Now we’re winning them. So I think it just took a lot to get to it. Sometimes you’ve got to go through things to learn, and I think those experiences at the beginning of the season when we were having those good games and losing, making mistakes at the end of the game, we’re capitalizing on that now. It just took a little time. We just have to keep our edge and stay consistent.’’
And if that means the Bulls are putting their anticipated high draft pick in jeopardy, so be it.
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