Off to a fast start in his Chicago Bulls return, Mirotic hoping to stay consistent
The performance of Nikola Mirotic since returning from injury ranks as a pleasant surprise, for sure.
But the Chicago Bulls have seen this plenty of times before from Mirotic.
He will play like an all-star, sometimes for a few games, sometimes a few weeks. Who could forget his rookie season of 2014-15, when Mirotic averaged 20.8 points for the entire month of March?
In the past, Mirotic always has disappeared. He goes through stretches when he shoots poorly, makes bad decisions, and it takes him awhile to regain that confidence.
Will this time be any different?
Mirotic seems confident, even cocky, about the Bulls' 4-0 record since he recovered from facial fractures sustained in an Oct. 17 practice altercation. His scoring total has increased with every game he has played, cresting at 29 points in Wednesday's victory over Utah.
"He has given this group a jolt of confidence with the way he's gone out there and played, and he's been really good for our young guys," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Mirotic.
A significant change for Mirotic goes back to the summer. Even though he was a restricted free agent, he worked out at the Advocate Center and added 20 pounds of muscle.
He has taken that added strength to the post a few times. One of his better moves against Utah came when he faked one way, then spun the other way and hit a short fallaway jumper in the lane.
According to statistics on nba.com, Mirotic isn't playing any closer to the basket than he has in the past. He's getting 23.1 percent of his points in the paint, compared to 27.4 percent last season. Maybe the added strength has made him more confident near the basket, though.
Mirotic admitted he was concerned about whether he would lose speed by packing on weight. But adding strength to his legs seems to have made him more athletic. He has driven past defenders and gotten to the rim a few times already.
"I was really worried about gaining 20 pounds, that I'm not going to be that fast," Mirotic said. "I never took (weightlifting) that seriously, so I didn't know what exactly is going to happen.
"During the summer when I was working, I felt that strength going to the basket, dunking the ball. I was just telling myself, 'Niko, you've got to keep working.' That was the only way you could be consistent."
Sometimes when NBA players hits free agency, they stay away from the team's practice facility, assuming they may be headed elsewhere. So it was a bit unusual for Mirotic to clock in daily at the Bulls' facility.
He had no interest in changing teams, didn't appear to get any concrete offers anyway, and he signed a two-year, $25 million deal on the eve of training camp.
"I think a lot of that was on Niko, he made that decision to stay home," Hoiberg said. "He really hadn't had a summer where he was here dedicating the off-season to working on his body. That was an important part of what he's doing now."
During the four-game winning streak, Mirotic has shot 57 percent from the field overall and hit 12 of 23 shots from 3-point range. He has taken a few of his trademark crazy "heat-check" shots, but some of those have gone in.
Mirotic thinks the freedom of Hoiberg's offense has been a factor in the Bulls' improvement.
"Finally we are playing the games everybody expected us to play," he said. "(Faster) pace, sharing the ball, making 3s, playing fun basketball. At the end of the day if we can get a win, we need to have fun. So far now we think we are enjoying playing the basketball together, you can see good chemistry.
"The guys on the bench, they're all yelling and happy. So I think after all we've been through, this team deserves it."
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Outlook: The winning streak will be put to the test in Milwaukee, where SF Giannis Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the league's best players, averaging 29.9 points and 10.3 rebounds. SG Khris Middleton, injured most of last season, is at 19.9 ppg, while new PG Eric Bledsoe is contributing 17.8 ppg. The Bucks are 11-5 since Bledsoe arrived in a trade from Phoenix. Ex-Bulls SG Tony Snell has missed the last three games with a left patellar tendon strain. PG Matthew Dellavedova and SG Mirza Teletovic have been out with knee injuries. Since the 2010-11 season, the Bulls are 11-3 in Milwaukee.
Next: Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center, 7 p.m. Monday
-- Mike McGraw