By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The comments were made a bit cryptically, perhaps because Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic wanted it that way.
It’s been a long season for him, with external and internal pressure accompanying the future’s uncertainty that has been created by his own inconsistencies. It’s why this night resonated with Mirotic after he matched a season-high with 28 points to lead the Bulls to a 99-93 win against the Cavaliers at the United Center on Thursday night, giving Chicago a season sweep of the defending champions.
“I feel it’s my time,” Mirotic said. “It’s my time to make things right.”
Mirotic’s words came after he authored the latest gem in what’s been the highest-scoring — ergo best — four-game stretch of his career. Three times in the past four games, Mirotic has scored 28 points, helping the Bulls to three wins by shooting 20-of-32 on 3-pointers in that span.
Since being benched for three games earlier in March, including being inactive on March 12, Mirotic is averaging 18.3 points per game. Set to be a restricted free agent this summer, he’s also tilting the odds more in his favor to remain in Chicago, where he’s professed a desire to stay previously.
“Some players, maybe they need a little more time to be consistent,” Mirotic said.
“I’m enjoying the basketball. I just want to be happy. Right now, I’m very happy to be here. I want to make an impact at the end of the season, and I want to be in the playoffs.
“It’s just been a good feeling to be there and be a very important piece for the team.”
There were good vibes all over Thursday as Chicago improved to 36-39 and ran its inexplicable and bemusing home regular-season winning streak on TNT to 20 straight. The Bulls sit in ninth in the East, one game back of the Pacers and Heat, who are tied for seventh. And Chicago holds the tiebreaker over Miami and Indiana.
There have been a few common threads in Mirotic’s breakout performances. Citing overthinking as part of his past struggles, Mirotic is playing freely and displaying confidence. Mirotic credited point guard Rajon Rondo — whom earlier this season he called one of his all-time favorite teammates — for finding him “every single time I am there” in an open spot.
The box score reflected just that. Amid Mirotic’s 9-of-14 shooting night, Rondo assisted on seven of those field goals, including five 3-pointers.
“Every time I shoot that ball, I think it’s good — even if they’re a long shot,” Mirotic said.
So in all, 19 of Mirotic’s 28 points were assisted by Rondo.
“I’ve always looked for Niko,” said Rondo, who shot just 3-of-13 but was everywhere else with seven points, nine rebounds and a season-high 15 assists. “That’s what he does — is shoot the ball. The crazy thing is he’s doing it without plays. He doesn’t really have any play calls for him, but he’s finding a way to get to that (3-point) line or deeper than the line and make it count.”
Rondo and Mirotic have a quality relationship, to the extent that the straightforward comments that Rondo delivered postgame with a smile could be taken in stride.
“Hard to scout,” Rondo said. “Like I said, we don’t have any plays for Niko. We do, but we haven’t ran them in like six months. He was making shots six months ago, so…
“Hopefully, Coach will put a couple back in for him.”
Jimmy Butler — who had 25 points, six rebounds and five assists — just wants Mirotic to keep the same approach.
“Niko should continue to play and think like that,” Butler said. “I think that’s the way you’re successful out there, going out there and thinking you’re the best shooter, the best player, best whatever you want to be. If it’s in your head that you are that, nobody can take that from you.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.