CHICAGO -- In the wake of his team's ninth win in its past 11 games, a 92-87 triumph over the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, Chicago Bulls forward Niko Mirotic acknowledged that his and Bobby Portis' handling of an ugly preseason practice incident has been "huge" for the streaking group that continues to surprise the NBA.
Portis knocked out Mirotic on Oct. 17 with a punch that left the young forward with a concussion and facial fractures and caused him to miss the first 23 games of the season. The Bulls were 3-20 without Mirotic and are now 9-2 with him back on the floor. Mirotic, who is averaging career highs of 18.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game this season, knows that his and Portis' ability to coexist again has been a catalyst for the group.
"I think it was huge," Mirotic told ESPN on Wednesday night. "I think it was huge because people didn't know how we were going to act because it was a tough moment obviously for all of us, especially for me. But I think [up to now] we've handled it well. We've tried to be professional. That was really important for the guys because we kind of tried to stick together. And being back was a great [thing] for me, for my teammates. Right now we are all looking forward for Zach [LaVine] to be back, and we could be complete again. I think we're going to be in really good shape."
The Bulls' surprising turn this season is made even more impressive given that Mirotic and Portis have had little to no contact off the floor. For weeks, the Bulls' front office and coaching staff were hopeful that the two forwards would be able to talk to each other about the incident, but Portis admitted that he called and texted Mirotic to apologize but never heard back from his teammate.
Portis, who was suspended for the first eight games of the season by the Bulls, is having the best season of his young career, averaging 12.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, both career highs. Although the pair still isn't communicating much off the floor, they have found a camaraderie on it, routinely fist bumping each other and high-fiving after one of them makes a big play.
"We feel proud of ourselves because coming from the difficult stretch we had before and now being capable to win nine [out of] 11, it's huge for us," Mirotic said of the Bulls' recent play. "We are not the worst team everybody was talking [about]. Everybody kind of felt like, people were wishing us to be the worst team, I don't know the reason, but we knew that our time would come. We were practicing very hard. I was injured for 23 games, but now we are back, and you can see people excited again about us. The guys are having a lot of fun. You can see the bench yelling all the time, jumping, and it's been fun playing so far now, but there is a lot of room where we can improve as a team. I think we are doing so far so good now."
Bulls point guard Kris Dunn echoed Mirotic's sentiments recently, noting that one of the reasons the Bulls continue to play their best basketball of the season is because Mirotic and Portis were able to bury the hatchet when Mirotic returned to the floor.
"They hashed it out," Dunn said last week. "They brought that positivity back into the team. They're playing well off each other. They're playing unbelievable basketball. ... It's special for the team to see. We're proud to have them both back."
Mirotic and his teammates are well aware of the fact that the Bulls' front office might still decide to move some pieces in the coming weeks as the trade deadline approaches, but the Bulls' recent wins might have already altered the team's direction in the short term.
Many both inside and outside the organization believed that the Bulls would stack up losses this year in hopes of landing one of the top picks in this summer's NBA draft. With the Bulls playing as well as they are now, Mirotic believes that his young group can make the playoffs this season if the front office decides to keep the group together with LaVine, an athletic wing, expected to return in the next few weeks as he continues rehabbing an ACL injury.
"It's going to be great," Mirotic said. "It depends once again on the front office. The decisions, the moves they're going to make. But the only thing I can say, if we're going to be all healthy, all together here until the end of the year, probably we're going to be fighting for the playoffs. I can bet that right now. But that's too far [ahead]. We need to go game by game. About myself, we'll see what's going to happen, but for me most important until the last day I'm here, I just want to prove myself, prove how good I [can] be, all the work I did this summer and help the guys to win. That's all I can do so far just in my power. We'll see what's going to happen."
Dunn admitted that he and his teammates have even joked about how fast their turnaround has been after starting the season so poorly.
"We joke about it all the time," Dunn said after Wednesday's win. "We're just trying to change it around. It's just a credit to the team. We're going out there competing each and every game ... we just laugh because the whole time we were positive. We didn't care about the losses that we had early because we understood we could have won those games. There were a lot of close games that we let slip by. We just laugh because out of nowhere we just changed it, and that chemistry clicked. We're tough right now. We're going out there, and we know we're competing with each and every team that we play against."
As happy as Mirotic and his teammates appear to be on the floor in recent weeks, the 26-year-old also knows that the NBA is a business, and he might end up elsewhere before the season ends.
Mirotic, who signed a two-year deal just before training camp opened that includes a team option for next season, would have to waive his no-trade clause for this year in order for the Bulls to send him anywhere. After years of saying how comfortable he and his family felt in Chicago, Mirotic seems content with whichever direction the Bulls decide to go. Whether it was the fight with Portis or the uncomfortable aftermath that came immediately after, Mirotic appears more at peace than he has ever been in the NBA. He is confident in his abilities and knows he has put in the work to have a long future in the league.
"I love Chicago," Mirotic said. "That's true, and I'm very thankful for the opportunity. The front office, they brought me here. I know it's been hard the first three years [a lot of] ups and downs. Right now it's going in a different direction. But some players need more time to adjust than others. The most important [thing] at the end of the day is that you're going to find a way to be good, to be consistent, important. And I think I'm finding that way right now. I just want to play well, win and whatever decision the teams make, I'll be fine with that."