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Nikola Mirotic’s return sparks Bulls to 6-game win streak


CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic has turned into a matchup nightmare. Kris Dunn looks like one of the NBA’s most promising young point guards, and Bobby Portis and David Nwaba have provided a spark off the bench.

For a team that was supposed to be tanking this year, the Chicago Bulls look awfully competitive all of a sudden.

Led by Mirotic and Dunn, Chicago beat Philadelphia 117-115 on Monday night for its sixth consecutive victory on the heels of a 10-game slide – a turnaround unlike any other in NBA history. The Bulls are perfect since Mirotic returned Dec. 8 after missing the start of the season with facial fractures following a fight with Portis.

“I think the biggest thing is, the reason why we are winning, is because we are having fun with it,” Dunn said. “When you are having fun, when you are winning, things (are) a lot smoother.”

This was not exactly the plan for Chicago after it went 41-41 last season and lost to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. All-Star Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota in June and Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson departed for greener pastures as Chicago embarked on a potentially painful rebuilding process.

Then Mirotic and Portis got into an altercation during practice on Oct. 17, and the Bulls became the laughingstock of the league. Portis was suspended for eight games and Mirotic needed weeks to recover from his injuries.

For a while, no one was quite sure whether Mirotic and Portis would be able to play together again. But they figured it out over time, validating Chicago’s patient approach to the situation.

“I was very, very excited to start the season,” Mirotic said. “Putting in all the work and gaining 20 pounds of (muscle) on my body, but sometimes things just happen (for) a reason. You never know why is the reason. Even maybe could be looking very bad in the beginning, but at the end of the day, now, I’m not saying it’s good, but just trying to be positive out there, making my life simple in the game.”

The 26-year-old Mirotic, who re-signed with Chicago in September on a two-year contract that could pay as much as $27 million, was maddeningly inconsistent during his first three years in the league. But he has been an absolute terror since coming back from the preseason fight, averaging 20.3 points and 7.3 rebounds during the streak.

He has been more aggressive after often deferring to his teammates early in his career. Offseason weightlifting work has helped with his low-post game and defense.

“He’s a real threat, you have to know where he is,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think when we study, what does a modern-day player look like, it looks like him. It looks like him. Big athlete, got a bounce, can make shots, and seemingly he’s been one of the key things to connect the dots.”

The 6-foot-10 Mirotic can shoot over smaller players or take the ball to the basket when he is guarded by a big man. With Dunn, Portis and rookie Lauri Markkanen creating their own matchup problems, the Bulls are becoming a tough team to defend.

Chicago (9-20) had seven players score in double figures in the victory over Philadelphia. It is averaging 111 points during its win streak.

“These guys have made leaps and bounds from where we were as far as making plays down the stretch and going out and playing with confidence when it matters most,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Dunn, who came over in the Butler deal, hit a couple of big shots down the stretch against Philadelphia and finished with 22 points and six assists. He has scored in double figures in a career-best eight straight games.

Portis and Nwaba, who missed a chunk of the season with a sprained right ankle, have had their moments as well. Portis scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Friday night’s 115-109 victory at Milwaukee, and Nwaba has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games.

“David is doing a lot of little things for this team,” Hoiberg said. “We missed him a lot when he was out of the lineup.”

Next up for Hoiberg’s team is a visit from lowly Orlando, losers of five in a row and six of seven. Then Chicago hits the road for a challenging three-game trip to Cleveland, Boston and Milwaukee, and Zach LaVine could make his Bulls debut next month in his return from knee surgery.

After looking completely lost at times during a 3-20 start, there is suddenly reason for hope in Chicago.

“It’s still about taking positive steps and our team has done that in these past couple weeks,” Hoiberg said.


Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:


The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.

Reports: Jazz might trade Rodney Hood before deadline

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Rodney Hood has been a solid shooter for the Jazz this season, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from three. Of course, you remember him better for this.

Hood is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with the rise of Donovan Mitchell it’s not exactly clear what Hood’s role would be for the Jazz going forward.

Which means Utah might trade Hood, according to multiple reports.

Hood isn’t going to net much in return because he’s in the final year of a contract and because he misses time with nagging injuries (he was out the end of Friday’s game against the Knicks with a lower leg contusion), but considering the number of teams who could use another shooter in the mix there will be interest. More than the big name deals — Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan — this is the kind of trade likely to get done at the deadline.