Nikola Mirotic was at it again last night. He scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Bulls to a 98-86 victory. If it weren't for Mirotic's late game heroics, Chicago probably walks away from last night with another disappointing loss to show. Instead, the Bulls clinched a playoff birth (related: Washington is apparently completely coming apart at the seams) on the same night they got Jimmy Butler back from injury. Overall, it was a very good night for Chicago, and I'd like to share five observations with you.
I mean, Mirotic is the NBA's leading point-getter in fourth quarter points for the month of March. His 123 total outpaces such household names as LeBron James (94) and Russell Westbrook (83), the NBA's second and third place scorers for the month.
Most 4th quarter points in March: 123 - NIKOLA MIROTIC 94 - LeBron James 83 - Russell Westbrook 79 - Lou Williams 76 - Corey Brewer— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) March 24, 2015
Mirotic's breakout month is taking the league by storm, but most impressively of all, it's been how Niko is scoring his points. We know about his propensity for drawing fouls and shooting free throws, but last night was yet another exhibition of the many ways in which Mirotic can score. He drove right, he drove left. Spinning driving layups. One-dribble pull-ups from mid range. Dirk-like step-backs. He beat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (whose praises I sang a week ago) in the post. He drained a three. He dunked all over Jason Maxiell. Simply put: there was nothing Mirotic didn't do last night. The entire repertoire was on display. And when it mattered most (up four with a little over 2:30 remaining), Mirotic went on a personal 8-0 run -- which included splashing a three, the dunk on Maxiell, and a driving layup for an and-one -- to bury the Hornets. What a freaking talent this guy is, man.
2) The Captain
Believe it or not, Kirk Hinrich has played pretty well lately. There's not much to show for it in the box score other than being 10 for his last 18 from three-point range, but I'm telling you, Kirk's not playing bad right now. Well, maybe it's just that he's not playing spectacularly awful anymore. I'm not quite sure which, to be honest. But while I want to give Kirk credit for finally doing some commendable things on the court -- for example, he's snuffed out a few plays recently just by knowing the play the opposing team was running -- I can't give him as much credit as I'd like because he's playing too many damn minutes again.
When Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler were out of the lineup this month, there was an eight-game stretch where Kirk didn't play more than 24 minutes in a game, and it was perfect! He wasn't trying to do too much when he was out there, which was the biggest thing, and he also looked fresher as a result of not playing heavy minutes. However, since Taj returned to the lineup Kirk hasn't played fewer than 25 minutes and nearly logged 30 last night. This, of course, is Tom Thibodeau's doing. And it looks like Thibs is going to go down sinking on The Captain's ship this postseason.
3) Better to be lucky than good
Prior to the aforementioned 8-0 Mirotic run which effectively ended the Hornets last night, this play happened:
If it's not clear, Kemba Walker is trying to put back a missed shot attempt and is blatantly pushed in the back by Pau Gasol. Also, you might notice Aaron Brooks standing alone -- which is the real problem here -- not boxing Walker out. This play should have cost the Bulls dearly. A put back here and the Hornets are within two points of the lead with basically two minutes left to play. Instead, the Bulls are very fortuitous to not only have the refs miss the call on Pau, but also that Brooks' laziness didn't come back to bite them. Sometimes, you can pin-point the exact moment when a game is both won and lost, and this was definitely it last night.
4) Baseline Out Of Bounds
Nothing crazy, just a little wheel play that -- for whatever reason -- always seems to work for the Bulls. I really don't understand how teams haven't scouted this play by now. Stacey King always points this play out when it happens and then proceeds to wonder how it continues to work, and he's 100 percent right in doing so. I feel the same way Stacey does. The Bulls net a positive result out of this baseline set almost on a per game basis, and that baffles me. But hey, if it ain't broke don't fix it, right?
5) Pau Gasol's mid range
According to Basketball Reference, Gasol is shooting a sensational 48.5 percent on two-point field goals being taken at least 16-feet out or further. He's 113 for 233 on the year, which is flat out remarkable. So yes, if it has felt like Pau's been automatic from mid range this season, the numbers back it up.