Nikola Mirotic returns in win, declares ‘Niko’s back’

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There was confidence in Nikola Mirotic’s voice as he quickly went from sounding like a basketball player to sounding like a seer.

“We’re going to win this first game I come back in,’’ the fourth-year forward said Thursday before making his regular-season debut against the Hornets on Friday. “We’re going to start winning more games. We have to. I’m not going to say how many games we’ll win, but things are going to change.’’

And change they have.

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Not only did the Bulls put to rest an ugly 10-game skid, but they also finally showed that they could win a close game in crunch time, beating the Hornets 119-111 in overtime. Two of the Bulls’ four wins have come against Charlotte.

No wonder Mirotic was all smiles after the game.

Mirotic played just under 15 minutes, shooting 2-for-7 from the field for six points, but he was a plus-9. After the game, he doubled down on what his return means.

“I knew it,’’ Mirotic said. “I saw [assistant coach] Randy Brown this morning, and I said, ‘Randy, we’re going to win this game.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Cause I’m back, I’m sure we’re going to win it.’ Yeah, huge, huge game for us. I’m happy that I am back on the court, and like I said, just trying to make some impact on the game.’’

And while plus/minus can be misleading sometimes, Mirotic didn’t see it that way.

“The most important thing for me was to win the game,’’ Mirotic said. “When I’m back, the team is going to win.

“That’s huge for me. I made an important three from the corner, but the plus/minus — plus-9 — the team was playing good when I was out there. At the end of the day, we are all together in this locker room trying to figure out how to play together, how to win, and I only can say that Niko is back.’’

And welcomed back with open arms, as well.

That didn’t seem like it was going to be the case even a few weeks back, when Mirotic and his camp issued an ultimatum to the Bulls that either he or Bobby Portis had to be traded.

While both players have kept their distance off the court, they remained professional on it, even getting a lot of time together.

Mirotic first checked into the game with 3:31 left in the first quarter and quickly cut into the Hornets’ lead with a layup and foul to complete the three-point play.

“We all knew there would be some rust,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said.

And there was. Mirotic didn’t hit his second shot until the fourth quarter. It was a memorable one, however, as his corner three-pointer put the Bulls up five.

“He’s a veteran player and you could see his veteran play out there,’’ guard Kris Dunn said. “You could tell it’s not his first time being out there. He made a big-time shot in the corner and everybody on the bench said that’s what he does. At the right time he makes big-time shots. He plays tough, physical, so it was great to have him back.’’

In the overtime, it was all Bulls. Lauri Markkanen scored five of his 24 points, and Dunn added four of his 20.

“I’m just happy for this team,’’ Mirotic said. “And like I said, Niko’s back.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com


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