TELANDER: Mirotic returns with more moxie, more strength & more focus
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Clearly, Nikola Mirotic is a new man.
The Bulls power forward went into seclusion after getting punched in the face by teammate and fellow power forward Bobby Portis in the preseason.
He worked out on his own and grumbled and fumed and spun a 6-10 cocoon, then emerged 12 days ago as — shazam! — Super-Dude.
On Dec. 8, he played his first game this season with the Bulls, and, if you’ll recall, the Bulls were a league-worst 3-20 at the time. They were a joke filled with ineptitude, dysfunction and one dumb punch line.
Indeed, a 10-win season was not an impossibility. Full tank mode had been engaged.
Then comes Niko!
Though he only scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in his season debut against the visiting Hornets, the Bulls won 119-111. Mirotic was even back on the floor — briefly — with Portis, his archenemy, with whom he’d said he would never play again. It was as if Batman had lain down in a field of clover with the Joker.
Energy and aggressiveness emanated from Mirotic and his thick beard the way electric waves emanate from a radio tower. Something was abruptly different with the Bulls, and not just that they had raised their miserable record to a slightly less miserable 4-20.
Mirotic was heavier, stronger and seemingly more focused, skilled and — dare we say — meaner on the floor. He wasn’t in Portis-style fighting mode, but he attacked the rim, fought hard for his shots and wanted the ball at crunch time.
In the second game of his return from the hidden metamorphosis, he scored 19 against the Knicks. Again, the Bulls won.
Next came the Celtics, Jazz, Bucks and 76ers. Super-Dude went off for 24, 29, 22 and 22, also yanking down 38 rebounds in those last four games. Who was this unmasked man?
Oh, and the Bulls won each of those games, scoring more than 100 points with ease.
The pitiful 3-20 Bulls were now a not-good but ascendant 9-20. And, yes, 6-0 since Mirotic rejoined the team.
It’s clear that winning a bunch more games will make the Bulls a more entertaining and dynamic team, but they started too late to likely make the playoffs even as an eighth seed. Plus, winning just ruins their draft-lottery high hopes, the reward for being pathetic in the NBA.
But winning is never bad.
As somebody once told me, we could all die tomorrow and then who’s the party for?
So Mirotic, averaging 24.2 points and 9.5 rebounds in the last four games, is not only playing with the man who could have disfigured him with that punch (recall the damage left by boxers on their foes), he is suddenly the leader of this once-lost team.
Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, coach Fred Hoiberg and everyone in Mirotic’s camp are to be complimented for not letting something very sad and unfortunate fester into a vendetta of destruction. For those who thought getting rid of Portis — or Mirotic — was the solution to the Bulls’ mess, well, we all can take a deep breath of thanks for the healing of time.
And Mirotic — career averages of 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds — being reborn as a superstar is something to rejoice over. Sometimes it happens. A transformation in strength, maturity and focus changes all for a man.
And a team reaps the benefit.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.