Mirotic scores 19 off the bench to lead Bulls past Knicks

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Sunday, December 10, 2017

CHICAGO -- After taking a well-publicized shot from Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic called his own shot in his return to the Bulls' lineup.

Mirotic, who missed almost two months because of facial fractures and a concussion suffered in a practice scuffle with Portis, scored 19 points in a 104-102 win over the New York Knicks on Saturday night, the Bulls' second victory in a row.

"I said to Randy Brown at the Charlotte game that we're going to win that game, and he said, 'Why?'" Mirotic said. "And I said 'Because I'm back.' And we won that game, and today I told him too -- 'We're going to win two in a row.' And he said, 'Niko, I trust you.' We are 2-0, so there is no coincidence."

Mirotic never doubted that he would succeed whenever he returned to the court and is very proud of the fact that the Bulls are undefeated since his return to the lineup. Aside from the self-confidence, something that he has struggled with throughout his four-year NBA career, Mirotic has brought a calming veteran presence to a team in desperate need of one.

The joy after the Bulls' latest victory was palpable because of the anguish the season has already caused. The Mirotic-Portis drama caused actual pain in a season in which the Bulls dropped 20 of their first 23 games. The success the Bulls have had since Mirotic's return has provided a sliver of hope in a slog of tanking this proud franchise hasn't experienced in years.

What made Mirotic's performance even more impressive Saturday was the fact that the Bulls didn't get back to Chicago until Saturday around 2 p.m. after weather delayed their pilot's arrival after Friday's win, forcing them to spend another night in Charlotte. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg is proud of the way his struggling team continues to play, and he enjoys being able to count on Mirotic again after playing without him for so long.

"He's been really good both nights," Hoiberg said. "Last night he didn't shoot it great, but he went out there and gave us an edge on the defensive end. You can see it; he knows where to be, he's in the right position, he's engaged in his stance, came up with a couple key rebounds, but Niko's a guy who's been playing this game a long time at a high level. So to get that type of player back -- I think he and Bobby have been terrific together in that second unit."

Perhaps the strangest part to an already strange season for the Bulls is that Mirotic and Portis are actually playing very well together in their brief time on the floor. Mirotic, who has accepted Portis' apology through the media, but up to this point hasn't publicly revealed if he has spoken to Portis since the fight, seems to have found a rhythm with a player whom many observers thought he would never play with again.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the two-man lineup of Mirotic and Portis has played 24 minutes together, combining for a 115.6 offensive rating and a 103.8 defensive rating, for an 11.8-net positive. The Bulls have scored 223 points over these last two wins, 59 of which have been while Portis and Mirotic were both on the floor, a plus-7 together on the floor.

While the two still may not be speaking off the floor, they are letting their games do the talking on it. Portis celebrated loudly after Mirotic drained a triple in the second half as the Bulls enjoyed the feeling that has eluded so often throughout the first quarter of the season -- the one that goes along with winning.

"Making five 3s helps," Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen cracked. "It's really good to have him back."

The winning ways likely won't last long for a Bulls team that hosts the Boston Celtics on Monday night, but Mirotic's presence, and his ability to coexist again with Portis, have given the Bulls the kind of jolt that they've needed.

"I am very proud," Mirotic said of his team's new beginning with him. "That's the most important thing for me. Even without scoring, just being there I'm going to help the team, because of my personality, because of talking to them, trying to support them. That's who I am. I was always a good teammate, and that was my job."

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