By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Just shy of seven weeks after catching a punch from teammate Bobby Portis that he didn’t anticipate, Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic is on the verge of returning to game action.
Mirotic is “feeling good” with his two facial fractures healed, and he expects to play this week. The primary factor holding him back now is the soreness he’s experiencing as he works back to full conditioning. While Mirotic hasn’t been ruled out against Cleveland on Monday, he’s more likely to return at Indiana on Wednesday or at Charlotte on Friday.
“He had two really good days with Windy City but is very sore, almost like training camp-like soreness with Niko being back really for the first time,” coach Fred Hoiberg said before practice Sunday. “We’ll get him another good day of contact today, then make the determination to see what his week looks like.”
Mirotic’s practices with the Windy City Bulls on Thursday and Friday helped his conditioning a great deal, he said. He also indicated he has full confidence in his shot, reminding reporters with a smile that he was beating rookie Lauri Markkanen, who has earned the starting power forward spot in Mirotic’s absence, in shooting competitions in practice.
“I’m beating him in shooting in the training, yeah,” Mirotic said. “But the most important is how you’re shooting in the games at the end of the day. But we’re really having some competitions here after the practices. Some days he wins, some days are mine. But most of the days, I do, I do win.”
When Mirotic does return, he will likely slot into the second unit. Also on that unit will be Portis, assuming he’s recovered from a right arm contusion that kept him out of Friday’s loss. Portis’ status is unclear for Monday’s game, though the contusion isn’t expected to keep him out long.
Hoiberg believes the Bulls have moved on from the Mirotic-Portis saga that has cost Mirotic the season’s first 21 games, over which the Bulls have started 3-18. The two will co-exist when matters pertain to basketball and otherwise ignore one another.
“Niko’s in great spirits,” Hoiberg said. “Again, the important thing is to get him back in basketball shape right now. He and Bobby have had their moments together since he’s been back on the practice court. Again, they’ve practiced with each other on the same team, and they’ve also gone against each other. I do think that’s behind us now. The important thing is just going out, concentrating and focusing on basketball.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.