By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — What a difference 15 days can make.
It was on Nov. 29 that Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic publicly addressed reporters for the first time since suffering facial fractures from teammate Bobby Portis’ punch in practice on Oct. 17. His tone was subdued and serious, befitting of the need to address an ugly incident with uncertainty awaiting in the short term and long term.
On Wednesday evening, Mirotic was serious again — but this time with his swagger meter on full. He had just scored a team-high 29 points in the Bulls’ 103-100 win against the Jazz at the United Center, which vaulted Chicago to 4-0 since he returned to action last Friday.
That’s not a coincidence in Mirotic’s mind.
“I’ve been telling you guys,” Mirotic said. “I’ve been very positive. Some of you guys thought I was joking, but I was not joking. I was very, very serious. I told you we were going to be 4-0.”
A week ago, the Bulls were 3-20. Now, it’s reached the point that point guard Kris Dunn, whose two late jumpers helped lift the Bulls to victory, fielded a postgame question pertaining to the Bulls’ playoff chances.
Not a soul is going there internally, but Mirotic is quick to point out how the Bulls can be competitive with him back.
“We have to keep building from this,” Mirotic said. “We have some tough games now, but with me back, we have way more chances now.”
What Mirotic is most excited about is how his presence has helped the Bulls flourish as a group. Boasting the league’s worst offense, Chicago has shown offensive life by averaging 108.5 points (with an overtime session included) in the four games Mirotic has played.
They’ve also looked more the part in playing coach Fred Hoiberg’s preferred style.
“The way we are playing now is helping me,” Mirotic said after starting for the second straight as Lauri Markkanen again sat out with back soreness. “He’s calling great plays when I’m in there. The guys are trying to find me a lot of times. Finally, we are playing the game everybody is expecting us to play — that was the pace, sharing the ball, making threes, playing fun basketball.”
Mirotic is averaging 19.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting, including 52.2 percent on 3-pointers, to go along with 5.8 rebounds.
“Niko has brought a confidence to this team,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a guy that has gotten off, whether he’s coming off the bench or he’s started, he’s gotten off to great starts.
“He’s doing a good job on the defensive end. Again, we talk about that a lot. Niko does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score after the game just by being in the right spot.”
Mirotic’s goal as he missed the season’s first 23 games was to stay positive, and he didn’t want to let his personal “ups and downs” affect his attitude and then rub off on his teammates. So he focused on keeping an upbeat demeanor.
Now, Mirotic is happy to have a chance to showcase that spirit and swagger to and alongside everyone.
“I knew that in the moment when I was coming (back), the team was not in a good moment,” Mirotic said. “So I had to at least step up like a guy and talk to them and be supportive.
“At the end of the day, if we get a win, we need to have fun. So far, I think we are enjoying playing the basketball together. You can see good chemistry. The guys on the bench, they’re all yelling. They’ve been happy. I think after we all we’ve gone through, we deserve it.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.