Despite the growing distance from the second spot in the Eastern conference, the Chicago Bulls believe that once the list of injured players become shorter, the valuable experience and confidence through more playing time given to players like Nikola Mirotic can provide the difference between another short playoff run and contending for the NBA title.
Mirotic scored 25 points as the Bulls evened the series against the Pacers at 2-2 for the season. The Bulls won 103-86 with some excellent defense, holding the Pacers to just 39% from the field. The Pacers are a limited bunch offensively, and with the ball stuck in the hands of players and no one getting hot enough to make a difference, the Bulls’ depleted lineup had superiority in the second and fourth quarters to claim the convincing victory.
So what makes the Bulls a sort of championship team in potential? Despite Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson not playing, they’re not falling apart. Pau Gasol is probably the most consistent big man in the league this season with another double double of 19 points and 11 rebounds. Mike Dunleavy had his best game in a while with 21 points, Tony Snell has jumped to the next level on both ends of the floor and Joakim Noah, with only 6 points but also 14 boards and 7 assists provides a lot of the things that Aaron Brooks can’t.
And then there’s Mirotic, a rookie, but he is 24. He has also been through a lot of tense moments when playing for Real Madrid, both in the Spanish basketball league and the Euroleague. Maybe everything is bigger in the NBA, but the press is just as demanding and deadly in its criticism beyond the Atlantic, and the fans are probably more difficult to satisfy or ignore. And there’s also the matter of actually being a great basketball player.
Mirotic has been getting plenty of minutes thanks to Gibson’s injury, but it takes someone with talent to make the most of those minutes. He’s averaging 20.8 points per game in March, shooting 41.9% from the field and grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game. When he was just a prospect, everyone kept talking about the next Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, it’ll take time to reach that level, but Mirotic is showing that when given the minutes, he can produce at a very high level.
His defense is still way below the standards the Bulls have gotten used to but he was never supposed to spend so many minutes on the floor. Their defensive problems aren’t because of him. It has more to do with Thibodeau struggling to make this unit a cohesive one defensively. It’s difficult when it’s so rare to have a completely healthy roster for once.
But there are promising signs about everyone coming back very soon. Once again, it’ll take time for the guys to find their rhythm and footing, yet it’s impossible to ignore the depth and talent the Bulls have. All they’re missing is a little bit of luck and continuity. The bench, with Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic soon returning to a smaller role, might be the big difference maker when the real season begins.