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‘Niko’s back’ — now Bulls have to deal with player whom many disliked

NEW ORLEANS — Nikola Mirotic didn’t have many friends in the Bulls’ locker room by the time he was traded in January.

And that still might be an understatement.

The front office couldn’t wait to deal him, most of the Bulls’ personnel was fed up with him and even his younger teammates weren’t exactly sad that Bobby Portis punched him in the face months earlier.

Yet, once he was finally healthy and playing after the injuries he suffered from the jab, Mirotic strolled around beating his chest almost defiantly after stellar performances, making sure all those haters wearing the same jersey understood exactly why the Bulls were suddenly winning.

“Niko’s back,” he would insist night after night when the Bulls were playing their best basketball of the season.

Like him or not, Mirotic wasn’t wrong.

The Bulls finally traded him to the Pelicans for a first-round pick that turned into Chandler Hutchison. On Wednesday in New Orleans, Mirotic will have an opportunity to beat his chest once again, still wearing a Pelicans uniform and still looking to remind his now former teammates that he was the reason they played their best basketball.

“I’ll say this about Niko: He was unbelievable throughout everything,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I loved the opportunity to coach Niko. What he did when he got back from the injury last year and helped us in that seven-game win streak, you know he was playing great basketball. I give him all the credit in the world and everyone involved with what happened last year. A lot of credit for not letting that affect the team.

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“Niko was great. Fun guy to coach, and he was obviously skilled in a lot of different ways. I’m happy he’s having a lot of success in New Orleans.’’

It’s only 10 games, but the versatile forward has career highs with 21.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

And while most of his former teammates couldn’t care less about his numbers now — and frankly him — Mirotic did have a few allies.

Hoiberg always spoke highly of him. So did his locker neighbor Robin Lopez.

“I adored him. I adored playing with Niko,” Lopez said. “I loved having him next to me in the locker room, and I’m glad he’s having a great season.

“That’s a guy that, on the floor, he’s pretty carefree. I think that’s contagious, too. It makes it fun to play. He’s carefree. He’s a smart player out there. He’s a lot smarter defensively than a lot of people give him credit for. He’s really savvy defensively.”

This is Mirotic’s first game against the Bulls since the trade. He missed the preseason game in September at the United Center because of a sore ankle.

At the time, Mirotic took the high road when discussing the Bulls — sort of.

“I’m not saying they used me the best way they could to improve my game, but just having the opportunity was great and I’m just thankful,” he said. “I had a great end of the season in New Orleans, we went to the semifinals and that’s all I wanted. To play in the playoffs and have a chance to improve my game. That’s all I want to keep doing.”

Niko’s back. Let the chest-beating begin.