The playoff hunt is alive and well thanks to Nikola Mirotic

SHARE The playoff hunt is alive and well thanks to Nikola Mirotic
SHARE The playoff hunt is alive and well thanks to Nikola Mirotic

It might be a quick glimpse up at the scoreboard.

Or a couple of taps on the smartphone late at night away from the arena.

Either way, there’s no avoiding the scoreboard-watching this time of year.

“You kind of want to ignore it a little bit, kind of make it so you control what you can control, but I’ve had a wandering eye at times, yes,’’ Bulls center Robin Lopez said.

“Everybody is fighting for those last few spots. Everybody wants to be playing playoff ball.’’

Some more than others, obviously, as the Bulls defeated LeBron James and the slumping Cleveland Cavaliers 99-93 on Thursday at the United Center.

Thanks to 28 points from Nikola Mirotic and 25 from Jimmy Butler, the Bulls improved to 36-39 with seven regular-season games left and, more important, are only a game behind the Pacers for the No. 8 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

In completing the season sweep of the defending champions, the Bulls also kept a unique streak alive, winning 20 consecutive Thursday night home games on TNT going back to the 2013 season.

Asked to explain the streak, all coach Fred Hoiberg could say was, “I can’t.’’

No explanation needed, especially after overcoming a nine-point halftime deficit and outscoring the fading Cavaliers 37-21 in the third quarter.

“Physicality,’’ Mirotic said of the third-quarter turnaround. “We played with great physicality. It’s the whole team.’’

Once again, Mirotic did a lot of the heavy lifting.

Mirotic, who has had 28 points in back-to-back games, has scored in double figures in four consecutive games and seven of the last nine. Not bad for a guy who was out of the rotation this month.

“Just the rhythm and confidence Mirotic is playing with now,’’ Hoiberg said. “We’re finding him. Anytime he plays like this, gets in this kind of rhythm, we’re playing good basketball.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the kid that he didn’t just put his head down [when times were bad], walk away and mope.’’

How important was Mirotic’s presence against Cleveland?

Mirotic scored 13 points in the first quarter, leaving the game for a breather with the score tied 20-20. The Cavs then went on a 14-4 run, and by the time Mirotic re-entered the game in the second quarter, the Bulls found themselves down 36-29.

In grabbing control in the third, Mirotic once again led the way, shooting 3-for-5 from three-point range and scoring nine points.

“I can’t explain it,’’ Mirotic said of his resurgence. “Maybe it’s good sometimes that things happen. Some players, maybe they need a little more time to have consistency. I feel like it’s my time. It’s my time to make things right. I just want to enjoy basketball and be happy, and right now I’m very happy to be here. I want to make it to the end of the season, and I want to be in the playoffs. That’s all.’’

Must-win pressure games seem to fit this team well all of a sudden, Lopez said after victories against Milwaukee and Cleveland in back-to-back games.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be going into a season like this,’’ Lopez said.

“It’s fun, especially after last season [Lopez was with the Knicks], when the last few games were essentially meaningless for us. It’s fun to be in this position.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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