With the tank parked in the garage for now, the Chicago Bulls seem to be testing their surprising success by adjusting the degree of difficulty.
They survived a season-low 4-point game by Nikola Mirotic on Wednesday against New York. Friday's challenge was the absence of point guard Kris Dunn, a last-minute scratch due to patellar tendinitis in his left knee.
Even without Dunn, the Bulls kept rolling. Mirotic and rookie Lauri Markkanen paced the long-distance offense, and the Bulls won their seventh straight home game with a 119-107 victory over the Indiana Pacers at the United Center.
The Bulls (13-22) have won 10 of their last 12 games. Only Golden State has a better record during that time frame.
Markkanen scored a career-high 32 points, while Mirotic added 28. The two big men combined to hit 13 of 25 attempts from 3-point range. As a team, the Bulls tied their franchise record with 18 threes.
Versatile big men have become a staple of coach Fred Hoiberg's offense. In between knocking down 3s, Markkanen and Mirotic took turns diving into the post when a smaller defender switched onto them.
"It's tough to guard," said Jerian Grant, who dished out 12 assists while filling in for Dunn. "It's the new NBA. The best teams in the league have guys like that. We're obviously a team that's growing, trying to get there. We're on our way."
Mirotic made it obvious right away he wasn't going to settle for another low-scoring output. He scored 17 points during 11 minutes in the first half, then had another flurry of tough 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. He went 8-for-16 from long range overall.
"He's just so confident right now and I really, truly believe that's rubbing off on our entire team," Hoiberg said.
Mirotic is well aware that consistency was perhaps the biggest problem during his first three NBA seasons. He set out to get stronger last summer and thinks that has played a role in his improvement.
"If I were in this position last year, I think I would probably struggle for a couple more games," Mirotic said. "But it's my moment and just feeling that I've been playing great. It's not just about scoring, it's about winning. That's what makes me very happy and very confident."
As good as Mirotic has been since returning from injury at the start of the Bulls' streak, Dunn has arguably been the team's MVP. So this was a significant test for the Bulls, even though Indiana played without top scorer Victor Oladipo, who is sidelined by knee pain.
The decision to sit Dunn was made late in warmups. Grant has started 15 games this season, so he's used to that role. The Bulls didn't really have a backup point guard, since Cameron Payne is still out and they cut Kay Felder last week.
But they made it work with Grant playing 33 minutes.
"He (Dunn) didn't have full flexion in his knee and we decided it wasn't smart for him to go out and play," Hoiberg said. "So I told Jerian at about the two-minute mark that he was going to start, and he kind of looked at me like I had three eyes.
"But he went out there and obviously responded in a big way."
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