Chicago Bulls' Hoiberg faces tough lineup choices every game
Is there concrete evidence that the Chicago Bulls' tank is back on the road and rolling toward the NBA draft lottery?
Not at all, but some saw coach Fred Hoiberg's decision to sit Nikola Mirotic down the stretch in Monday's overtime loss to Portland as a sign the Bulls were trying to lose.
Mirotic has been the Bulls' leading scorer since the turnaround began Dec. 8, but late-game lineups have been a dilemma for Hoiberg most of the season.
On Sunday against Washington, Mirotic did play in the fourth quarter and the Bulls still lost. The next day against the Blazers, Hoiberg didn't sit Kris Dunn late in the game.
A lineup featuring Lauri Markkanen helped push the Bulls to a 6-point lead with 2:37 remaining. And the NBA's last two-minute report said a foul should have been called at the end of overtime when Dunn missed a potential tying jumper while Portland's Shabazz Napier smacked his forearm.
Does that sound like the actions of a team trying to lose?
Of course not.
The two most recent losses were more an illustration of how well things have gone lately for the Bulls.
They held a 3-point lead in Washington with 54 seconds left, were up by 6 against Portland and simply couldn't finish off either game. Otherwise, the Bulls were very good in late-game situations during their 10-4 stretch since Dec. 8.
"We've got to learn throughout the season, throughout these close games," Hoiberg said after Monday's overtime loss.
As for why Mirotic sat, Hoiberg explained that he thought Robin Lopez would be a better matchup with Portland center Jusuf Nurkic. Mirotic experienced a back issue Monday but said he felt good enough to play.
"Obviously, I wish I was there playing," Mirotic said after the game. "I felt good in the third quarter, making some shots, and Fred just played with Lauri and Lopez, which is great. We couldn't get that win unfortunately, so we keep moving forward."
In some ways, Hoiberg can't win with his lineup choices. When he has gone with Mirotic and Bobby Portis down the stretch in victories, there were complaints that Markkanen wasn't getting the late-game experience he needs.
Since the turnaround began, Mirotic is the Bulls' leading fourth-quarter scorer at 5.6 points, followed by Dunn at 4.7. Portis and David Nwaba are third and fourth.
What's interesting is Mirotic, Portis, Nwaba, Markkanen, Lopez, Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine all are shooting better than 50 percent in fourth quarters since Dec. 8. That's a sign the Bulls are getting good ball movement and making smart shot choices.
Against Washington, Hoiberg used Nwaba in the fourth quarter. Against Portland, he made a flip and went with Nwaba instead of Valentine at the start of the second half in an effort to slow down Blazers forward Evan Turner. Then Valentine played in the fourth quarter and led the Bulls with 8 points.
Maybe Monday was a night to try a tall front line of Mirotic, Markkanen and Lopez down the stretch.
The biggest downfall for the Bulls was Portland forward Al-Farouq Aminu going 4-for-4 from 3-point range, including 2 in a row after the Bulls grabbed the 6-point lead. It's always easier to choose lineups in hindsight.
There wouldn't seem to be any point in trying to lose games now with Zach LaVine, who should be the Bulls' best player, ready to come back from knee surgery. LaVine had the fourth practice of his personal six-day training camp Tuesday.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls.