It’s Just One Game, But Starting Nikola Mirotic Seems Right


There’s 81 games left, but the insertion of second-year man Nikola Mirotic into the Chicago Bulls starting lineup could pay huge dividends for the Bulls this season.

Throughout the summer, vouching for Nikola Mirotic to be inserted into the starting lineup became an everyday gig. When you watched Mirotic play during his rookie season — even outside of his stellar month of March — you could see that there was potential for the 6-foot-10 Montenegrin to become a legit player in the NBA.

New Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg made the decision to start Nikola Mirotic with EuroBasket 2015 teammate Pau Gasol and move former defensive player of the year Joakim Noah to the bench. It’s just the first of 82 games, but Hoiberg appears to be onto something with his Spanish-packed front court duo.

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In the season opener for the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night at home against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mirotic was one of the best players on the floor all night long. Mirotic scored a team-high 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting and pulled down nine rebounds in the 97-95 Bulls victory over Cleveland.

What made Mirotic so efficient in the season opener was his ability to knock down shots from the perimeter; something he didn’t do well at all last season. During his rookie season, Mirotic shot just 31.6 percent from downtown. On Tuesday, he drained three of his four three-point attempts.

(Note: The Bulls as a team were 4-of-15 from long range minus Mirotic’s numbers.)

Tuesday was more than just Mirotic hitting the outside shot. He scored in a variety of ways against the Cavaliers.

Sure, Kevin Love isn’t a great defender and Mirotic has about a foot of height on Mo Williams, but the ability to put the ball on the deck and get to the basket is what makes Mirotic such a potential threat moving forward for the Bulls. He’s not just a guy who will sit at the three-point line and shoot all day. He’ll utilize his famous pump fakes and look for better shots.

What also makes Mirotic more dangerous in his second season is the personnel groupings. Last season, he played with mostly second-unit players. This season, he’s going to have a bigger spotlight and more chances to produce.

In the play above, Mirotic runs a pick-and-roll on the wing with Jimmy Butler, one of the best drivers in the NBA. Love appears to switch with J.R. Smith, but Smith stays with his man (Butler), leaving Mirotic all alone at the top of the key. It’s a simple play, but the fact that Mirotic shot this with no hesitation shows how his game is getting better by the day.

On a personal note, this one right here was my favorite bucket of the game for the Bulls.

When Mirotic made this shot, there was a little over five minutes left in the fourth quarter and Cleveland was leading, 83-82. Mirotic hit newly-paid Tristan Thompson with a pump fake, drove to the baseline and threw up a tough teardrop over J.R. Smith for the bucket and the foul.

Not only did Mirotic show great touch with the and-one, this bucket stole back momentum for the Bulls. The end of the third quarter and for most of the final quarter, the Bulls struggled to score. When they hit the early parts of “crunch time”, Mirotic made a big-time play to keep the Bulls in the game.

Mirotic made play after play on the offensive end, along with putting forth a good (not great) defensive effort in the opener. “My goal this year is to show people I can play well defensively,” Mirotic said after the game on Tuesday.

He’s not there yet defensively, but he’s not as bad as one would think he is:

Mirotic won’t be making the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams any time soon, but his play on both ends of the floor in the season opener showed that Fred Hoiberg might be on the right track with starting him on a nightly basis this season.

(Vines via Bulls Vine legend Gustavo Vega.)

Next: Five Bulls Takeaways from Opening Night Victory over Cleveland

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