By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — The Bulls fell to the Blazers, 124-120, in overtime at the United Center on Monday night, ending their seven-game home winning streak and dropping them to 13-24. Here are the notes and observations of the evening.
1. Entering Monday, the Bulls were 10-3 since forward Nikola Mirotic’s return to action. Included in that renaissance was a 5-2 mark in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime.
Time and again, coach Fred Hoiberg and players cited Mirotic’s calm demeanor, swagger and execution late as a key reason for the team’s resurgence.
In crunch time Monday, that same Mirotic was nowhere to be found. He sat for the final 12:34 of game action as Chicago closed with the big man pairing of Robin Lopez and Lauri Markkanen.
Hoiberg justified it by explaining that he wanted the size of the 282-pound Lopez to keep the 275-pound Jusuf Nurkic off the glass. While that’s understandable — and worked in that Nurkic didn’t have an offensive rebound late — it was also puzzling. Mirotic has been the Bulls’ best player since returning, averaging 18.3 points on 50.3 percent shooting.
To not play one of your top players because of concerns over a solid-but-unremarkable player on the other side is a poor thought process. It meant the Bulls, with the game on the line, weren’t making use of one of their biggest advantages — spreading the floor and making the slow-footed Nurkic get out of the paint and guard someone.
And it’s not like Nurkic was dominating in any sense. He finished with 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting and 15 rebounds, four on the offensive glass.
2. A prime trade candidate when he’s eligible to be dealt in two weeks, Mirotic had 18 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes. He took the high road when asked about being benched late.
“Everybody wants to play, obviously,” said Mirotic, the team’s leading scorer at 18.3 points per game who’s shooting 50.3 percent for the season. “But Coach has to make a decision. Sometimes, for example, RoLo was playing really good in Washington (on Sunday) in the beginning of the game, in the third quarter and then he didn’t play basically the fourth quarter. So today, I felt I was really good. I felt the team was playing well too with me on the court. But there was nothing wrong with going with Lauri and RoLo. If we win that game, everything would be different. Nobody would say like, ‘Niko’s not there.'”
Mirotic had gotten a rib banged up in the second quarter, but he was available to play late and called his health “good.”
“I’m always positive,” Mirotic said. “I will never let my teammates or anybody down, the coaching staff. You know, it is what it is. We need to keep moving forward, and we’ll be fine.”
3. Kris Dunn attacked relentlessly in this game, with mixed results. He had 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting, but he had just four assists against eight turnovers. He had a key turnover with 48 seconds left in regulation trying to thread the needle on a pass in the paint in a tie game.
In overtime, he missed two jumpers inside the final minute that could’ve tied it. While he got some decent looks and to good spots on the floor, opponents are content if Dunn is firing jumpers with the game on the line.
With Mirotic on the bench late, there just wasn’t quite as much space to operate. And Mirotic’s presence could’ve taken some of the playmaking burden off Dunn as well on a night in which he was erratic in taking care of the ball.
4. Hoiberg’s rationale for going with Lopez over Mirotic in crunch time was certainly defensible, even if you didn’t think it was right move. Less defensible was his decision with 23 seconds remaining in overtime to not call a timeout after Justin Holiday rebounded a Blazers miss with the Bulls trailing 122-120. Had Hoiberg done that, he could’ve subbed in Mirotic for Lopez in an offensive-minded lineup.
Instead, Hoiberg want to “try to get something in the flow.” It resulted in a Dunn-Lopez pick-and-roll and nothing going on. Not having your most efficient offensive player on the floor when you’re going to lose if you don’t get a hoop is a mistake.
“When I came off the screen, I was trying to get RoLo on the pocket pass,” Dunn said. “They did a good job on that. Then I was trying to looking out for the kickout to our guys. Credit to them, they got back to them. I saw I was deep in the paint. I felt I was bigger than the guy who was guarding me. I tried to rise over him, but I didn’t get my legs under me. And I didn’t shoot the shot correctly. That’s on me.”
5. For all the recent worry about the Bulls playing themselves out of a top-four or top-five draft pick with a seven-game winning streak, take a look now. After losing each set of a Sunday-Monday back-to-back, Chicago is just 2.5 games clear of the worst mark in the NBA, held by Atlanta at 10-26. The Bulls’ 13-24 record is the seventh-worst in the league.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.