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Bulls vs. Hornets final score: Nikola Mirotic erupts again in 4th quarter, leads Bulls to 98-86 victory

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Mirotic scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and had several highlight plays.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler returned for the Bulls on Monday night against the Hornets, but Nikola Mirotic once again stole the show, scoring 14 of his team-high 28 points in the fourth quarter in a 98-86 victory that didn't include Joakim Noah due to some "general soreness." (aka rest) The win clinched a playoff berth for the Bulls.

The Hornets hung around for much of the night, and the Bulls only led by four points with just under three minutes to play. Then Mirotic took over, burying a wide open three (his first of the night) and then doing this:

Mirotic followed that up with an and-1, making it eight straight points down the stretch to put the game away. I also have to post this nasty step-back jumper that was, I must admit, Dirkish:

Mirotic had a chance to set a career high when he went to the line in the final minute, but he missed both free throws. And because people are stupid, there was booing for no Big Macs. Way to go, idiots.

In addition to Mirotic's huge game, Pau Gasol added 27 points and 12 rebounds:

Aaron Brooks also had a double-double with 13 points and 10 assists, and he only turned the ball over once. Kemba Walker did have his way with Brooks at times (29 points), but Brooks generally did a nice job running things.

Butler was noticeably rusty in his return, missing quite a few bunnies at the basket. He shot just 6-of-20 from the field, but he still finished with 19 points thanks to going 7-of-10 from the charity stripe. He also added nine rebounds in, you guessed it, 40 minutes. Even though he shot poorly, it was great to have Butler back and looking aggressive driving to the basket.

It felt like the Bulls outplayed the Hornets for basically the entire first half, with Gasol murdering Al Jefferson on mid-range looks and Mirotic starting strong off the bench. Gasol had 12 points in the first quarter alone, mostly on a steady diet of pick-and-pops that Jefferson had little interest in contesting. Mirotic had 14 points in the first half, with six of those coming from the line.

However, the Hornets hung around thanks to some hot three-point shooting and some porous Bulls defense at the end of the first half. Charlotte somehow shot 7-of-9 from deep in the opening half, with Mo Williams knocking down three long-range bombs, and it's not like they were all wide open. But the Bulls did give up some easy buckets in the paint at the tail end of the second quarter, and the Hornets actually led by one at the break.

The Bulls took control of the game in the third quarter, with Gasol going back to work on Jefferson. (Who was horrid all night) Not only did Gasol continue to knock down jumpers, but he also sized up Jefferson on one post-up and then drove right around him for a dunk. And as he has been wont to do lately, Gasol buried a corner three:

Gasol has made eight of his last 11 threes.

In a rotational note, Kirk Hinrich played 30 minutes and closed the game over Tony Snell, who did very little in his 16 minutes of action. Snell has naturally regressed after his ridiculous February and Hinrich has been playing a bit better of late, but this isn't a great sign.

Anyway, another awesome Mirotic game and Butler coming back is reason to start getting a bit more excited about this season. I wouldn't worry about Noah sitting out, as it's likely just another maintenance day during a busy stretch of the schedule. Now we just wait for No. 1 to return and pray nobody else goes down in the meantime.