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Nikola Mirotic needs to change some minds over the final 20 games

The numbers show some improvement for Nikola Mirotic, but it sure feels like a step back this season for the second-year player.

“It’s been a process of learning every day,’’ Mirotic said on Monday, playing in just his second game since an appendicitis gone wrong. “I’m not disappointed. Of course I was expecting that it was going to be a hard season for me. Everything was different, so I had a lot of up and downs this season. I’m trying to play regular every game. That’s not easy right now. But I know I’m going to be there when they need me, and of course I’m really happy with where I am right now.’’

Where Mirotic is right now is back on the court. His hope is the rest will take care of itself.

It was back in late January that Mirotic had to have emergency surgery for an appendicitis, and was back in surgery a few days later because of a hematoma.

The collateral damage was a loss of 18 pounds and some serious deconditioning, with Mirotic finally returning to the court Saturday against Houston.

He’s still five pounds light, but said everything else is close to coming back.

“Not too far,’’ Mirotic said, when asked when he felt he would be back at full strength. “I think so because I’m working hard and I’m going to be there soon, so not too far. Maybe a week, 10 days, maximum.

“A couple hours in the weight room, it’s something I’m doing right now, what I’ve been doing the last couple weeks. It takes time, especially when I’m improving playing. There’s nothing like the game.’’

Bigger picture for Mirotic, especially as far as the Bulls are concerned, is will the stretch four be a core player they can build around moving forward? That was the thought coming into the season, but with some serious growing pains in his sophomore season, and then the injury, the jury is still out.

The nice thing for Mirotic is he has 20 regular-season games to try and change some minds.

“I just think it’s really conditioning right now,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said of the final hurdle Mirotic has to clear to show he’s fully back. “He took a couple blows that first day he was back in practice [last week]. And I think that gave him the confidence to throw his body around, which you have to do.

“You can’t play scared that if you get hit, something may happen, or you’ll have a setback. You just have to go out there and react and play. I think it was big step for Niko. Now it’s a matter of getting his lungs in shape and getting his wind back.’’

Still on schedule

According to Hoiberg, injured veteran Joakim Noah was still scheduled to return to the team later this week, and continue his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery.

Noah was rehabbing in New York City, and with the Bulls playing Friday night at the United Center, that was the expected return day.