Bulls Mavericks Basketball

Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic moves the gall up the court against the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of Friday's game.

Michael Ainsworth, Associated Press

Talk about an inspiring sports comeback.

Nikola Mirotic gets popped in the kisser by Bulls teammate Bobby Portis during a chippy practice. Portis is suspended eight games, Mirotic refuses surgery to have his facial fractures tended to, and fans believe the two will never again step on the court together.

Soon after the incident, many in the Chicago media felt certain Mirotic would be traded by Jan. 15. This is, after all, a rebuilding year and management wants it to go as smooth as possible.

Portis returns, then Mirotic, and the Bulls go 10-2 with the 6-foot-10 bearded one back in uniform.

He's actually playing defense, rebounding, not turning the ball over as much and hitting deep 3s as if they're layups.

Fans are loving him. Teammates are loving him. He and Portis are smiling and giving each other high-fives in games.

Suddenly, the Bulls' bench is scary good.

What the blazes?

Mirotic paired with 7-foot rookie Lauri Markkanen or the 6-11 Portis have been carving up opposing defenses since being reunited.

From Dec. 8 to Dec. 30, the Bulls ranked fourth in the league in scoring and second in pace.

Imagine what athletic 3-point shooter and two-time NBA Slam Dunk champion Zach LaVine will add when he returns soon from ACL surgery.

Though not rich in talent, the Bulls play fast and hard, and together most of the time. Trading Mirotic seems like a bad move now.

He was averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and shooting 45.9 percent from beyond the arc before Saturday night's game with the slumping Pacers.

Not only has his game changed — no more double- and triple-head fakes, no more hesitating with the ball — but so has his attitude.

"I told myself I had to be aggressive a little more and it felt great," Mirotic said. "Teammates try to find me now. It's just fun. Things are going well. We're all very excited."

Coach Fred Hoiberg, who prefers the positive when singling out his players, said Mirotic's confidence is rubbing off on the other Bulls.

That makes Niko blush.

"It's great, him saying that. Makes me even more confident," Mirotic said. "I've been trying to go into the low post and play without the ball more.

"I like the way Lauri and me are closing games."

Mirotic's streaky play used to drive coaches and fans crazy. Great game one night. AWOL the next.

"It's all about being consistent now. That's my goal," he said. "I've struggled the last couple of years. Now, it's my moment but it's not just about scoring. It's not like I'm scoring and we're losing.

"It's all about winning."

Don't you just love hearing that, finally?

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