Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

No matter the metric or the occasion, the only thing definitive about the Bulls over the last two seasons has been their mystifying dominance over the Cleveland Cavaliers in head-to-head matchups.

That, and their fascinating streak of consecutive wins while playing at home on TNT, a streak that could end at 19 games Thursday night when the two teams with varying objectives clash at the United Center.

The Cavaliers are searching to find themselves, along with a light switch that will perhaps alert them to a lost defense over the past several weeks that has been worst in the league since the All-Star break.

The Bulls are searching for consistency, but since it's probably a little too late in the season for that, they'll settle for a playoff spot with eight games left.

They'll take two straight wins for the first time in a month, if they can get it.

They'll extend a goofy streak, if that’s what things will come down to.

"The big thing is obviously you have to execute very well against this Cleveland team," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "You have to go out there with great urgency, great energy. I anticipate them coming in and playing with a ton of energy tomorrow. We're going to have to match that. We're going to have to come out and play physical basketball."

Having a big break between games this late in the season is a rarity, as the Bulls have been off since Sunday evening, but it's just another weird detail in this weird Bulls experience.

An experience that the mild-mannered Hoiberg has to experience from his couch some nights, such as watching the Miami Heat furiously steal a game in Detroit at the buzzer with a Hasaan Whiteside tip-in to extend a lead over his team to a game, followed by another win Wednesday to put more distance between the two teams.

"I did, actually," said Hoiberg with a smirk when asked if he's scoreboard watching and paying attention to the teams ahead of the Bulls in the playoff race.

After being prompted to give his raw emotions when Whiteside's tip-in occurred, he slipped right back to Robo-Hoiberg — although one can imagine how animated he must've been while looking to catch a break from a previous contender for the eighth spot in the Pistons.

"It is what it is," Hoiberg said. "You have to go out and worry about yourselves at this time of year. It was a great finish for Miami, obviously, the way that game ended. But there's nothing you can do about that. You've got to worry about yourselves and hopefully go out and execute."

Going 6-1 against the Cavaliers in his two seasons as Bulls coach is probably the biggest feather in his cap, including three wins in all three meetings this go round.

The rhyme or reason doesn't seem explainable, but Nikola Mirotic seemed to give a few keys to the Bulls' success over LeBron James' Cavaliers: Sharing the ball, controlling the glass and getting back on defense.

"Against big teams, we play much better," Mirotic said. "I don't know why is the reason for that. We need to find a way to play against everybody like that. It's on us. We just have to prove it."

Usually, those tenets seem to work against most teams, not just the supremely talented champions who've just lost a grip on first place in the conference.

But their inconsistencies have left the Bulls here with a handful of games left before the April 12th finale.

A win over Cleveland could mean everything, or nothing at all, or something in between.

"Sure, we understand," Mirotic said. "We've been in a very similar situation last year. We didn’t make the playoffs so this year we want to try to make that push. I think we have a good schedule for the last. Very important game tomorrow, huge one. I think we have played very well against Cleveland until now. We have a chance. We need to get out there and play with energy." 

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

It's too bad Nikola Mirotic never played college basketball in the United States. He would have been fun to watch during March Madness.

For some reason, Mirotic has saved his best basketball for the month of March over his three NBA seasons. During his rookie season in 2014-15, Mirotic took advantage of injuries to a couple of the Bulls key players, and averaged 20.8 points a game with expanded playing time in March, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring.

Last season, after rehabbing from two surgeries following appendicitis, Niko averaged just over 13 points a game in March, shooting better than 53 percent from deep.

And this season, Mirotic is averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting from the field during his favorite month. Since he re-entered the rotation back on March 13, Mirotic has been even better, averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.

It appeared Mirotic's time with the Bulls was coming to an end when Fred Hoiberg held him out of three straight games earlier this month, including a spot on the inactive list in Boston on March 12. At that point, Mirotic talked openly of not knowing why he had been taken out of the rotation. Now, he might be the key to the Bulls' playoff hopes.

Mirotic has scored a season-high 28 points each in two of the last three games.

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, "The big thing with Niko is he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. Anybody who's a shooter, they play with confidence, the game's a lot easier. He's not hesitating at all with his shots. He's taking good shots in the flow of the offense. When Jimmy and Rajon get in the paint, and Niko's spacing the floor, it's a great look and right now he's knocking them down."

So, right now all is good for the 26-year-old native of Montenegro. But it's hard to look past the inconsistency that's marked his NBA career. Mirotic is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his three NBA seasons, shooting  41 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Not exactly the numbers Bulls' fans expected from the guy considered to be one of the best prospects in Europe when he was drafted in 2011. 

Now, as Mirotic gets ready to head into restricted free agency this summer, the Bulls are faced with a difficult decision. Are they willing to pay more than $10 million a year for a player who's been so inconsistent in the NBA? Or, do they let Mirotic walk and risk the possibility the light will suddenly come on for a 6-foot-10 stretch forward that every team in the league could utilize?

The Bulls have 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis under contract for next season, and Paul Zipser and Joffrey Lauvergne also could be in the mix for playing time at the power forward spot. And, there's always the chance the Bulls could get in the bidding for big name free agents Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap.

But after trading Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Bulls are painfully short on 3-point shooting threats, and that might lead the front office to decide they'll need to overpay to keep Mirotic around.

It's just one of the tough decisions the Bulls front office faces in what promises to be a fascinating off-season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

It's been another tough season in Phoenix. Despite adding a number of lottery picks in recent years, the Suns currently own the third-worst record in the league. Maybe that's why the players were celebrating with so much energy during a loss in Boston last Friday, watching second year guard Devin Booker explode for 70 points.

Booker becomes only the 6th NBA player to hit the 70-point plateau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson and Elgin Baylor. The baby-faced 20-year-old shooting guard connected on 21 of 40 shots from the field (only 4-11 from 3-point range), plus 24 of 26 from the free-throw line.

With the game hopelessly out of reach in the 4th quarter the Suns kept feeding the ball to Booker to see how high he could push his point total. It might not have pleased basketball purists, but it sure was fun for the Suns' players during their 51st loss of the year.

Phoenix added a pair of young big men in last year's draft, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and they have a deep backcourt with Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. So, is there a chance they could enter the bidding for Bulls' star Jimmy Butler this summer?

Would a top-3 pick and Bledsoe be enough for Butler? Or would the Bulls prefer a couple of the Suns' young frontcourt players, Bender, Alex Len or T.J. Warren to go along with the pick?

With seven or eight elite prospects at the top of this year's draft, the Bulls will have some options if they decide to go the total rebuild route.

If the Bulls do go shopping for a Butler deal, don't count on Boston still being interested this summer. In case you haven't noticed, the Celtics moved ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East earlier this week, and Danny Ainge might decide he can build a championship team without making a major trade.

The Celtics already have two All-Star caliber players on the roster in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and if the pick they have coming from Brooklyn remains in the top 3, Ainge will be able to add an elite young player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson. After holding on to those Brooklyn picks for so long in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, it's hard to imagine Ainge changing direction now.

Plus, the Celtics also will have enough salary cap room to go after a top free agent, and they've long been linked to Jazz star Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. It's possible the Celtics could come back next season with a lineup of Thomas and Fultz/Ball in the backcourt, with Horford, Hayward and Jae Crowder up front. Maybe not the star power to match Cleveland, but certainly a team that could contend in the East for a number of years to come.

Former Bulls' All-Star Joakim Noah met with the New York media to discuss his 20 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance contained in an over the counter supplement he was taking. 

"I made a mistake. It was a tough year for me, for this team," Noah told reporters after returning to practice Tuesday. "... I let a lot of people down. It was a mistake. And I gotta learn from it and bounce back. This is a tough moment and I'm going to learn from it."

Noah said he used the supplement to try to help him bounce back from a hamstring injury he suffered in early February. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on February 27 to remove loose fragments.

The Knicks are hoping he can get medical clearance to serve part of the 20-game suspension this season, with the remaining time served at the start of the 2017-18 season. Noah still has three more years left on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with Phil Jackson's Knicks last summer.

Kevin Durant continues to work his way back from the sprained knee he suffered on February 28th in Washington. The Warriors released a statement on Wednesday saying Durant has made very good progress in his rehab and will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days. The hope is to have Durant play a few regular season games over the final week to get him ready for the playoffs.

Durant has been traveling with the team, going through pre-game workouts monitored by the medical and training staff. The plan is to increase his level of movement over the next few days to see how the knee responds.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Even though the Bulls haven't won back-to-back games since February 24 and 25, the players continue to remain confident about their playoff chances.

This from Mirotic following practice on Wednesday, "We have to depend on just ourselves and pray basically. Hopefully we can be there...... I think we deserve it. The attitude of the team is great right now. We're sticking together even after that tough loss against Philly, we bounce back against Milwaukee. So, right now, we've got another chance."

The Bulls probably need to go 5-3 over the final eight games to make the postseason. After a season of ups and downs, it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to put together a stretch of solid basketball during the final two weeks.