By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — For a good week-plus, the redemption tale of Bulls forward Niko Mirotic felt like a playful storyline.
As each day passes, it continues to transform into something altogether more real, as Monday evening at the United Center displayed.
Continuing to play the best all-around basketball of his career, Mirotic had a team-high 22 points, game-high 13 rebounds and highlight-reel defensive plays to help will the Bulls to a 117-115 victory against the 76ers. It was Chicago’s sixth straight win, matching the longest streak of the Fred Hoiberg era, and kept the sharp-shooting, bold-predicting, previously maligned Mirotic undefeated since he returned Dec. 8 from facial fractures suffered from a punch by teammate Bobby Portis on Oct. 17.
“We are 6-0 now,” Mirotic said before continuing his comedy bit ahead of a matchup against the Magic on Wednesday. “So we’re going to try to be 7-0. We’re going to be for sure.”
There was something that felt different about Monday’s scene. The United Center felt more alive than it had all season in this rebuilding year for the Bulls that’s threatening to become … something more. The crowd was feeding off Mirotic, who was as expressive and emotional as ever.
He strutted and smiled when broke Dario Saric down off the dribble and hit a stepback 3-pointer. He celebrated with Portis after max-effort plays. He let out primal screams after his big plays defensively.
Afterward, Mirotic shed light on his demeanor, saying this is the most fun he’s had on the basketball floor since he played professionally in Europe.
“It’s been a long time, I didn’t have fun, like now, playing basketball,” said Mirotic, who came to Chicago in July 2014. “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.”
Mirotic was the difference-maker down the stretch as the Bulls rallied from eight down with 3:49 left. He had a block and a steal on back-to-back possessions inside three minutes. The first was followed by a 3-pointer from Kris Dunn (22 points, six assists) to tie it at 107-all, and after the second Mirotic delivered an old-fashioned 3-point play to give the Bulls the lead for good.
With 42 seconds left, Mirotic drilled a 3-pointer to put the Bulls up 117-112. He let out a roar, then returned coolly to receive high-fives from a raucous Bulls bench.
He hasn’t hid the fact he takes pride in what the Bulls have accomplished lately.
“I have to say yes, I do,” Mirotic said. “Why not? 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).
“It’s all about keep winning. We don’t have to stop right now. It’s a long season, and we know there’s a lot of room to improve on this team.”
With the win, the Bulls improved to 9-20 and sit — wait for it — 6.5 games out of the sixth/seventh/eighth spots in the East. Mirotic, who’s averaging 20.3 points on 51.9 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds, went out of his way to praise Hoiberg in his postgame comments, saying those who criticized Hoiberg as the Bulls were inconsistent the past two years “have to give him the credit too.”
Hoiberg fed it right back.
“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.
“Niko’s been in pressure situations a lot over the course of his basketball life. It’s great to have an experienced player out there with our young guys to help close some of the close ones. I give Niko a lot of the credit. He’s been awesome.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.