Surging Bulls continue road trip against Hawks

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Surging Bulls continue road trip against Hawks

Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2011
1:07 p.m.

Associated Press

(AP) -- While many expected the teams currently ahead of Chicago to be fighting for the Eastern Conference's top seed, few predicted the Bulls would also be in the thick of the race.

Looking to surpass their win total from last season, the surging Bulls continue their road trip Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, who return home seeking an eighth win in nine games in the series.

After beating Milwaukee 83-75 on Saturday, the Bulls (41-17) easily defeated Washington 105-77 on Monday night on the second stop of their five-game trek to move one game behind Miami and remain two behind East-leading Boston.

Chicago's trip is about to get more difficult, though, with matchups against Orlando and the Heat following their visit to Atlanta.

The Bulls, who face the Hawks three times in the next three weeks, have lost five straight at Atlanta by an average of 16.2 points and seven of eight overall in the series. MVP candidate Derrick Rose scored 32 points on Dec. 19, 2009, leading his team to its only victory over that span, 101-98 in overtime.

Chicago has won seven of eight overall and has limited opponents to 80.3 points on 38.0 percent shooting during a three-game winning streak - defense that could make things difficult on Atlanta.

The Hawks (36-24) are averaging just 89.4 points - 6.8 fewer than their season mark - over their last nine games and return to Philips Arena after losing four of seven on their recent trip.

"It's acceptable," coach Larry Drew said of the trip. "It could have been a lot worse. That's what I told the guys. We're still in a position where we can control our own destiny."

The fifth-place Hawks had won 14 of 16 at home prior to back-to-back losses before the trip, and will probably need to slow down two of Chicago's best players if they hope to avoid matching their longest home skid of the season.

Rose had 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds against the Wizards while Joakim Noah recorded 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 11 boards for his first double-double in four games since missing 30 with a torn ligament in his right thumb.

"He's back, almost to the point he was at before the injury," coach Tom Thibodeau told NBA.com. "His activity is off the charts. His defense is terrific, his rebounding is very good, and you can see he's starting to get a lot more comfortable offensively."

While Chicago is getting used to having one of its stars back, the Hawks could be without one of theirs after Josh Smith suffered a knee injury in a 100-90 loss at Denver on Monday night.

Smith was averaging 22.0 points in his previous three games prior to scoring 10 before leaving in the second quarter. He was unable to return and his status for Wednesday remains in question.

Joe Johnson scored 22 for the second consecutive night after averaging 11.4 points on 39.8 percent shooting in his previous seven games. Johnson is averaging 23.5 points in his last six meetings with Chicago, including two 40-point efforts.

The Hawks acquired guard Kirk Hinrich, who spent his first seven years in the league with the Bulls, from Washington prior to Thursday's trade deadline, but he was held out Monday with a sore right calf and could miss this game.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

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With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

The Bulls are focused on their own basketball these days, and in winning two of three they may have righted a ship that was headed toward another playoff miss.

But with just eight games remaining in the regular season they're also aware of where they stand in a closely knit Eastern Conference. As 

Entering Tuesday night the Bulls sit one-half game behind the Miami Heat for the No. 8 seed in the conference, while just 3.5 games separate the fifth-seeded Hawks and tenth-seeded Hornets.

With the Bulls in the middle of so much movement that's bound to change a half dozen times between now and April 12, Fred Hoiberg and his team admit they're paying attention to what the rest of the league is doing.

"You almost have to this time of the year with all the outlets, being able to watch every game with (NBA) League Pass," Hoiberg said at Tuesday's practice. "You do keep an eye on what other teams are doing. But at the same time we talk every day about how it's up to us. We've got to go out and play with purpose, play with energy every time we step on the floor, and give ourslves a chance to win."

The Bulls have done just that lately. 

An ugly skid in which they lost eight of 10 in March saw them fall out of the East playoff race, but crucial wins over the Pistons and Bucks - albeit with an ugly home loss to Philadelphia - have the Bulls back in solid playoff positioning.

Though they trail the Heat for that No. 8 spot, the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Miami (2-1 season series advantage) and have a far easier remaining schedule down the stretch. In fact, the Bulls' remaining opponents have a combined win percentage of .390, the easiest remaining path in the East. It's different in Miami, where Erik Spoelstra's group has the third most difficult remaining stretch in the East.

Throw in injuries to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside and it's looking likely that the Bulls will catch Dwyane Wade's old team by season's end. The Bulls' only two games against teams with winning records are the Cavaliers (8-10 since February began) and the Atlanta Hawks (losers of seven in a row).

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After that the Bulls get bottom feeders in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando and Brooklyn twice. Then again, the Bulls have had issues against some of those teams, as they tout a 7-4 record against those squads (with losses to New York twice, Philadelphia and Orlando).

With Wade out of the lineup the rest of the year the backcourt tandem of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo has picked up the slack. Rondo is looking more like the player who signed a two-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, averaging 12.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 7.4 assists in 31.1 minutes since being moved back to the starting lineup on March 13.

"I just try to look at what we're doing and control what we can control," Rajon Rondo said. "We're not playing other teams that we're racing against so we got 8 left and we want to take advantage of all eight.

"I would love to get back to the playoffs. That's the goal. That was the goal when I came here was to make the playoffs, nothing else. So we got a little bit more work to do.

Jimmy Butler claimed he hasn't been focused on what other teams around the Bulls are doing, but knows that making the playoffs has added value. Though the Bulls would likely be the No. 8 and seed and face either the Celtics or Cavaliers, with so many young players on the roster that experience can pay dividends down the line.

"You get to see how important every possession is, the way you've got to lock in, the challenge of playing the same team the possibility of seven times, it just shows the mental growth that you're gonna have to withstand and hold through a seven-game series," Butler said. "It's a lot harder than the regular season, I'll tell you that much."