CHICAGO -- The Nikola Mirotic revival tour isn't stopping anytime soon.
The Bulls forward scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Chicago won its sixth game in a row Monday night, 117-115 over the 76ers. The Bulls are now 6-0 since Mirotic returned from facial fractures and a concussion suffered at the hands of teammate Bobby Portis in an October fight just before the regular season began. The Bulls were 3-20 prior to Mirotic's return.
"Niko has brought a confidence to this team," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "You see our bench really rallying behind him when he's out there making plays. You see the guys on the floor celebrating together when he makes the big plays. ... Niko's been in pressure situations a lot over the course of his basketball life. And it's great to have an experienced player out there with our young guys to help close some of the close ones. I give Niko a lot of credit; he's been awesome, especially since he's been back in the lineup. When you've got guys out there playing with confidence, that rubs off on the whole team."
While the Bulls' winning streak has become one of the most unlikely storylines in the league after such a terrible start to the season, what's even more improbable is Mirotic's sudden rise as the leader of a young Chicago team that is playing its best basketball of the season. The unity the Bulls worked to build as a group was shattered when Portis' punch knocked out Mirotic, but the pair has been able to move on from the ugly incident, providing a huge jolt to a group in need of direction.
"They hashed it out," Bulls point guard Kris Dunn said of Portis and Mirotic. "They brought that positivity back into the team. They're playing well off each other. They're playing unbelievable basketball. Bobby had a phenomenal game last game, then [Niko] comes with a phenomenal game. They both played great today. It's special for the team to see. We're proud to have them both back."
Mirotic, who kept to himself at times during his first three seasons in Chicago, has enjoyed serving as a veteran presence for the young team and acknowledges that he is playing with more passion than at any other point in his career.
"When I'm out there, I'm just trying to make it simple," he said. "It's true that I'm playing with a lot of confidence right now. It's been a long time -- I didn't have fun like now playing basketball. A long, long time. Especially coming after a hard moment [with Portis]. ... I tell myself, 'Niko, just try to do your work. Try to have fun. Try to put all that work you did during the summer [toward] the game.' That's all I've been trying, and the difference I'm not just thinking about offensively this year. I'm trying to improve defensively, and that's what's making my life easier during the game. I'm very, very happy about it, but I know there is a lot of room for myself to improve, too."
On top of playing the most complete basketball of his young career, Mirotic is thriving off the confidence the group is showing in him. Fans in the United Center chanted "Niko! Niko!" during the game as Mirotic made several big plays down the stretch. Mirotic has also gotten comfortable in huddling up his teammates on the floor and providing encouragement.
"It shows his leadership skills," Dunn said. "He brings that fun to basketball. He understands the game and he's a great leader for us, especially for the young guys. He's been in so many games, he's made big plays. He understands when we're in a drought, get in the right place, try to execute, and when the ball's not going in, he's the first one to talk and tell everybody to get stops."
Mirotic said the winning streak is personally satisfying given the emotional ups and downs he and his teammates dealt with earlier in the year.
"It's huge seeing all those guys on the bench jumping and having fun," Mirotic said. "Before I came [back], everybody was like a little bit with their heads down. The thing is we were always practicing well, but we couldn't find a way to put that work we were putting into practice, playing at the same level [in] the game. But now I think we are much, much better. We come [to] the games with a different energy, we are not like coming to see what's going to happen, we are after the guys. That's a huge difference."
Mirotic has repeatedly praised Hoiberg for some of his tactical decisions and wholeheartedly believes the Bulls' winning ways will continue as they look to make it seven straight wins against the Magic on Wednesday night. Mirotic's four straight games of 20-plus points is the longest such streak of his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"The biggest thing is he's playing the right way," Hoiberg said. "He's taking tough shots, but with the roll that he's on right now you can live with some of those shots that he's taking. It's his overall game. He's doing a little bit of everything out there. He's obviously shooting the heck out of it, he's making big plays for us. Getting himself to the free throw line and he's guarding and rebounding. His overall game has been a huge lift to our group."