Exactly one month ago, the Chicago Bulls sunk to the place everyone thought they would this season: rock bottom. After holding a 19-point lead against the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Bulls gave away the game and lost by nine. Head coach Fred Hoiberg looked disturbed by it all in his postgame press conference.The players, meanwhile, seemed disappointed, but resigned to the fact that this is what life would be like this season. It couldn’t get much worse.
Naturally, it did. Chicago lost the next eight straight — five of them by seven points or fewer. As recently as two weeks ago, the Bulls were on a 10-game losing streak and had an overall record (3–20) that would have made Sam Hinkie beam with pride.
Then, Nikola Mirotic happened.
Yes, that Nikola Mirotic — the one who had his jaw broken by a Bobby Portis punch before the season even began. Mirotic returned seven games ago, and the Bulls have been unstoppable ever since. After Wednesday’s 112–94 win over Orlando, Chicago is now a perfect 7-of-7 since Mirotic’s comeback game on December 8.
This move from Nikola Mirotic was so nice even Bobby Portis gave him a high-five pic.twitter.com/xlYFKQejzE— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) December 19, 2017
I’m not sure if anyone has inquired about what Mirotic did during his recovery, but it looks like he went to Rockets University and came back as a better version of Ryan Anderson. He’s shooting nearly half of his shots from 3-point land, and more than 20 percent of his shots are coming from the midrange. All told, the 26-year-old with the majestic beard is averaging 19.6 points a game (nearly eight points higher than his previous career best), on a ridiculous 48.8 percent from 3 and 52 percent from the field. Chicago is 18.3 points per 100 possessions better when Mirotic is on the court than when he’s off. Small sample size, etc., etc., but this is mind-blowing.
The key to Mirotic’s run seems to be an almost brazen level of confidence. Even though the Bulls recently moved their red-hot forward to the bench in favor of rookie Lauri Markkanen, Mirotic is still handling the ball like a natural point guard and pulling up from everywhere like he’s Steph Curry.
Mirotic carrying the Bulls like Sylvester Stallone carried that gigantic tree log in Rocky IV isn’t the only part reason for the team’s dramatic turnaround. Kris Dunn, part of the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, didn’t start this season right. But the second-year point guard is having one of the best stretches of his career, averaging 16.6 points, 7.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 steals during the Bulls’ seven-game winning streak. Dunn’s chemistry with players like Denzel Valentine, who has had a resurgence of his own, has also helped.
But there’s a cost to this recent string of success. Even after seven straight wins, the Bulls (10–20 overall) are still second-to-last in the East. In other words, they haven’t gained much ground for an improbable playoff push. But they have helped other rebuilding teams close the gap in the race to the bottom. As of Thursday, the Bulls are fourth worst in the NBA, with 10 wins. Right behind (ahead of?) them are six teams with 11 wins. The Clippers are also lurking with 12 wins.
And while Markkanen has indeed reclaimed his starting spot, Hoiberg must now balance distributing minutes in a suddenly crowded frontcourt. Hoiberg has walked the line well so far — Mirotic and Markkanen played the same number of minutes (26) in Philly on Monday, and Mirotic played just two more minutes than the rookie in Wednesday’s blowout. But it will be interesting to see if the coach can keep everyone happy when a win is on the line.
But while management may fret over winning too many games and losing out on a chance at Luka Doncic, the players seem to be enjoying their moment. “It’s a blast,” Lopez said Wednesday night. Portis called it “a different feel.”
Against the Magic on Wednesday, Portis dished the ball to Mirotic, who sank a 3. They pointed at each other in affirmation. As the old adage goes: The best way to get over a teammate breaking your jaw is to go on a seven-game winning streak.