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Nikola Mirotic Shining for Undermanned Bulls

The Chicago Bulls waited a long time for Nikola Mirotic to come over from Europe after the Bulls acquired Mirotic in a draft night trade in 2011. While Mirotic was blossoming into a “Rising Star” with Real Madrid over the last few years, the anticipation to see this European sensation in the red and black grew and grew. He almost took on a mythical status, with the most optimistic of fans pegging him as the next Dirk Nowitzki (Or more like hoping he would be.)

Those were always lofty and unrealistic expectations, but at the very least, it seemed like the Bulls were getting a highly skilled stretch 4 when they finally inked him to an MLE-level contract in the summer.

Mirotic’s rookie season has been a bumpy ride, as rookie seasons generally are. He has dealt with inconsistencies with his play (so many pump-fakes) as well as inconsistencies with his playing time, as when healthy, the Bulls have four quality frontcourt players to play in Mirotic, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson. As a rookie, Mirotic was naturally fourth in that pecking order, and there was a five-game stretch in the first month of the season where he played just 27 minutes total.

But in the last three games, two-and-a-half of them without all three of Gibson, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, Mirotic has given us a glimpse of the immense potential he possesses. Sure, Mirotic has had some big games before, but he hadn’t put together three straight games like this.

In the last three contests (Bulls went 2-1), Mirotic averaged 26.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in 32.0 minutes per game, with 38 of his 78 points coming in the fourth quarter. His shooting numbers of 43.1 percent overall and 30.4 percent from three in the three games isn’t all that impressive, but his 58.7 true shooting percentage is, and he managed that by getting to the free throw line at an insane rate. He attempted 35 free throws, giving him a free throw rate (free throw attempts/field goal attempts) of .686 during that span. For reference, James Harden’s career-best free throw rate is .592.

Three games is an absurdly small sample size, but Mirotic has shown a penchant to get to the free throw line all season, as he has a solid .479 free throw rate on the year. That pump-fake he likes to use has been effective at times, and while he’s not overly athletic, he has a slick handle that he uses to his advantage to take opposing bigs off the dribble and draw fouls.

We saw this time and time again in the thrilling 108-105 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night, as Serge Ibaka had a bevy of problems containing Mirotic (via @DawkinsMTA):

And again:

The next sequence, coming at the very end of the game, was just superb. On the first play, Mirotic hits an onions three right in the face of Ibaka after what could have been a dagger putback by Enes Kanter:

After Russell Westbrook buried a killer jumper, Mirotic drew Ibaka out to the three-point line again, and this time utilized the pump-fake to get Ibaka to commit yet another foul:

The spacing Mirotic provides as a stretch 4 is something the Bulls just haven’t had in recent years, and even when he’s not knocking down threes at a high rate (2-of-9 against the Thunder), opposing defenses clearly respect his shot. And when they go out to guard him, he can use that pump-fake or simply his off-the-dribble skill to beat you. The pump-faking sometimes can get out of hand, but when he learns to use it at the proper times and not overdo it, it’ll be a huge weapon.

Furthermore, I really love the spacing Mirotic brings to the lineup when he’s playing alongside Noah, especially with Noah playing his Point Center role more of late. With Noah handling the ball or screening at the top of the key and shooters like Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy on the floor, the Bulls can really space you out and create good looks off that:

While part of this was simply a bad breakdown by the Thunder defense, it helped that both of their big men were drawn away from the basket with Noah playing up high and Mirotic behind the three-point line ready to shoot a three. Ibaka is the anchor of the OKC defense, but he couldn’t roam free in the paint when he had to guard Mirotic out to the three-point line.

The Mirotic-Noah pairing has actually been great all season even with Noah working his way back from knee surgery, and it has continued to be great over the last three games. For two-man units that have played at least 50 minutes together over the last three games, the Mirotic-Noah duo was the best on the team with a net rating of 11.7, per NBA.com. And again, while that’s an incredibly small sample size, that duo has a 10.6 net rating for the entire season.

Whenever the Bulls are healthy, Tom Thibodeau will have some difficult choices to make when it comes to lineups. It’s a good problem to have four quality big men, but Thibs will have to push the right buttons down the stretch and into the playoffs to find the right combinations at the right time. We could see more Mirotic at the 3 just to get him on the floor more, although he’s definitely better suited as a stretch 4.

But either way, the dude has to play.

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