By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — Monday marked the first day that Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic could be traded, a possibility following his well-documented training camp incident with teammate Bobby Portis and with Chicago continuing to keep the big picture in mind amid its rebuild.
Some time ago amid a Bulls season that no one could’ve predicted, Mirotic decided the best way to cope with all of this was with a laidback attitude. And so it was that Mirotic was figuratively dancing on the ceiling upon entering the locker room early Monday afternoon, as teammate Robin Lopez put it, and literally dribbling a basketball around reporters pregame while laughing.
That carefree mood only grew more jovial later when Mirotic, after struggling for three quarters, scored all 18 of his points in the fourth quarter to help the Bulls snap the Heat’s seven-game winning streak with a 119-111 victory at the United Center.
“You see everything is here,” Mirotic said, referencing his locker full of Bulls gear. “Hopefully, you know, they’re going to keep me a few more games, at least.”
Mirotic was commenting with a smile, which has been his facial expression of choice lately. He called this stretch — the Bulls’ 14-7 run since he returned from injury on Dec. 8 — the most fun he’s had in the NBA. That he’s playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 17.3 points and shooting 45 percent on 3-pointers, is a testament to both the work he put in last summer and his mental approach.
During his first three NBA seasons, Mirotic admitted that overthinking contributed to his inconsistencies. Now, he’s letting the outside noise fuel him.
“This is kind of some motivation for me,” Mirotic said. “I know it sounds weird, but you know, people are talking, ‘Niko will be gone, bye bye Niko.’ Whatever. For me, it’s just do what you got to do. Play well. Like I said, try to do the best until the last day and not be distracted. A lot people were asking me before this, ‘OK, Niko, January 15 is coming, what do you think?’ No, I’m not thinking about January 15. I’m thinking day by day of doing my job, being consistent.”
Mirotic, who has a team option for next season on his contract, fully understands that he could be leaving Chicago at any moment. It’s part of the reason why one of his postgame answers Monday made reference to how Bulls fans might remember him.
“I love playing in the United Center,” Mirotic said. “The best thing you can do is finish well. Everybody can appreciate that. That’s my goal.”
Mirotic’s camp initially informed the Bulls that he wanted a separation from Portis after the October altercation, and it’s believed that nothing has changed in that regard. Mirotic won’t go into detail there, and he’s tried to stay out of the mix altogether.
Mirotic hasn’t personally discussed his future with Bulls management, he said. He’s leaving that to his representation, led by Aylton Tesch.
“You guys are probably talking more to my agent than I do, honestly,” Mirotic said. “I told them, ‘Listen guys, if you have some news, call me. Don’t call me just to confuse my mind or something like that.'”
Mirotic has long maintained he and his family love Chicago. How much longer they’ll be here remains uncertain, but in what could perhaps be construed as a sales pitch of sorts to stay put, Mirotic happily responded to the statement that it looked as if he and rookie big man Lauri Markkanen were a pairing that could work well together in the long term.
Coach Fred Hoiberg has been closing many games with the Markkanen-Mirotic pairing, including Monday, when Markkanen added 17 points and nine rebounds.
“I agree with you,” Mirotic said. “I agree 100 percent with you. I’m very excited when we’re both playing together. So far we’re having a lot of success finishing those games, Lauri and me. But sometimes it’s not about you. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what they think they want to do for the future. I understand this is all kind of business. I’ll be fine with whatever decision they make. But I do love the idea of playing Lauri and me (together). I think it’s great. It’s the kind of basketball — how should I say it? — it’s new basketball, something that’s in fashion right now. I’m going to control what I can control. Let’s see what’s going to happen.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.