Niko Mirotic the best Bull on the floor — again — in sixth ‘W’ in row
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
They kind of lined up to outshine Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen Monday night at the United Center. At least, there were plenty of times during the suddenly hotter-than-hot team’s 117-15 victory over the 76ers when it felt that way.
Making his return from a three-game absence due to back spasms, Markkanen’s game stayed mostly dormant. The 7-footer missed his first four shots and ended with 10 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes, though he did nail a late three that sparked the Bulls’ final, decisive rally.
Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic, the player who started at power forward in Markkanen’s absence — and who seems to be hugely determined to make his own breaks this season — again was the Bulls’ best player on the floor in the team’s sixth victory in a row.
A coincidence that Mirotic has played only the last six games this season since returning from teammate Bobby Portis’ punch heard ’round the basketball world? Absolutely not.
“I don’t know what you guys were expecting,” Mirotic said of his surge in his fourth season in the league, all with the Bulls, “but this game I’m playing right now, I [expected it].”
In essentially the same number of minutes as Markkanen — with the two on the floor together only over the closing 3:49 — Mirotic poured in 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. But far more meaningful than the numbers were both the manner in which Mirotic repeatedly came up extra-large and the palpable effect it had on his teammates in the game and on the bench.
“Niko has brought a confidence to this team,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You see our bunch really rallying behind him.”
Wasn’t this bunch largely supposed to be Team Portis after the altercation between the teammates in training camp? All the Bulls seem to love Mirotic now.
On his first touch of the game, Mirotic made a lightning-quick spin over his right shoulder for a baseline score on Robert Covington. On his last touch, he tore down a defensive rebound in heavy, frenetic traffic to lock up another “W.”
In between — especially down the stretch — Mirotic was a man on fire. After Markkanen’s three brought the Bulls to within 107-104, Mirotic blocked Dario Saric at the rim and, one defensive possession later, sprawled to the floor to steal the ball from JJ Redick. After a 76ers timeout, Mirotic made a jump-hook over Saric and drew a foul, turned and pounded his chest, and converted the three-point play as the crowd chanted his first name.
Mirotic splashed in a three-pointer from the right wing for a 117-112 lead that was simply the shot of the game.
“Niko there, the last couple of minutes, willed us to a win,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Markkanen came into the night ranking fourth in points (14.1) and second in rebounds (8.1) per game among NBA rookies. Higher up the statistical ranks was 76ers rookie Ben Simmons, who dazzled without his usual partner in crime, center Joel Embiid. Simmons’ near triple-double — 19 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists — left no doubt about his standing relative to Markkanen. Not that there was much doubt about that beforehand.
Also terrific for the Bulls were Kris Dunn (22 points), who joined Mirotic in a co-closer’s role, and Justin Holliday, who scored all 20 of his points in the first half.
Holiday scored 10 points in a 1:14 stretch of the second quarter, nailing a trio of threes and drawing a foul on Simmons on the last one for a four-point play. He followed that a couple of minutes later with a two-handed reverse dunk on a fastbreak.
But Mirotic did the most to steal the show, which is precisely what he’d been doing before Markkanen’s return. He’s averaging 24.3 points and 9.5 rebounds over his last four games.
“It huge,” he said. “It’s huge seeing all the guys on the bench jumping and having fun.”
Markkanen’s time will come. For now, Mirotic is the man.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.