By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Yes, the Chicago Bulls are on an improbable six-game winning streak that happens to have coincided with the return of mercurial forward Nikola Mirotic. Yes, it has been Mirotic who has been the major contributor to those wins. And, yes, none of this is supposed to be happening.
But beyond all that is the amazingness of this whole Mirotic situation. Particularly when you consider this is a year the Bulls are expected to finish last in their division and maybe the conference and Mirotic was all but written off following his fight with and subsequent injury at the literal hands of teammate Bobby Portis. Just more than a week ago, we were debating the best way to delicately eat the Bulls’ drama frosting on the tank cake. Now it’s high fives and smiles, even between Mirotic and Portis. (Though no speaking between them of the floor as of yet, but baby steps and whatnot.)
“We are 6-0 now,” Mirotic said predictively “between wins” after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday and before the Orlando Magic visit on Wednesday. “So we’re going to try to be 7-0. We’re going to be for sure.”
Silly as a December prediction about two bottom feeders in the East is, I’m kinda digging this version of Niko. Not just the one who’s averaging more than 20 points a game since his return but also the one who has seemingly gone from the moody Euro import who hadn’t lived up to the hype in his three seasons prior to this version that now gives zero bleeps about anything but torching anyone in his way, be it on a contested 3-pointer or in print.
In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago’s Vincent Goodwill court-side at the United Center after Monday’s win, Mirotic decided to let it be known that he knows he’s been the butt of a lot of jokes (though he didn’t specifically mention which ones — beard, getting punched out after instigating a fight with a teammate, what?).
Most athletes who say they don’t pay attention to media are lying, and at least Mirotic is just putting the tea kettle right on the table. But it’s also the satisfaction that he seems to be taking in all this that you gotta respect. Anyone besides him who thought he’d do anything besides return to the Bulls as a pouty underachiever trying to find minutes in coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation is also lying. I’ll eat crow on this, and while doing so I appreciate Mirotic’s cool gratification in his moment right now.
Tuesday morning, the fingers that dropped 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds the night prior were still flaming, this time from a keyboard as he let the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom know that Niko is impervious to the media taunts he willingly listens to.
This smirking killing with kindness and not taking much bait whenever the Portis incident comes up while playing great basketball and not being shy about relishing it on the court and off is a really clever way to ingratiate a player back into the good graces of jerks like me. (And, hi, Niko, and thank you for reading.)
“It’s been a long time. I didn’t have fun, like now, playing basketball,” Mirotic said Monday evening. “A long, long time, especially coming after the hard moment.
“I need it. I need that. At the end of the day, we are all emotional. I’m not talking about just last season. You probably didn’t see me like that, putting that emotion at the game. But it’s never late. Those huge plays and those huge stops, especially when you’re winning, everything gets easier. It’s been fun.”
It really has, even if the smarter angels of my nature know that this Bulls team needs to lose as many games as possible — and those losses are going to come in droves this season. This Bulls thing in the last week has been more enjoyable than anything about the last two seasons when the front office was pretending to contend, besides the sadistic reasons I was into, at least. These guys aren’t the best squad in the league and can be sloppy as hell sometimes, but they are playing for Hoiberg and not dismissing him, and the head coach knows that Mirotic has greatly helped.
“Niko, I’ve talked a lot about this, has brought a confidence to this team,” Hoiberg said. “You see our bench really rallying behind him when he’s out there making plays. You see the guys on the floor celebrating together when he makes the big plays.”
That confidence is something Mirotic is openly flaunting without being a d-bag about it. And it’s really winning me over.
“Why not?” Mirotic opined. “It’s my moment, it’s the team moment too. I’m very, very proud, especially the team finding a way to win again and, you know, having fun. Because we were really, really struggling before I came, and we didn’t enjoy too much basketball. But we were so close to finding our way and find that small piece, and maybe that small piece (was me).”
I’m enjoying the multiple ways that Niko is winning.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.