The Bulls led the Knicks by only five points heading into the fourth quarter on Friday night, but turned the game into a blow out by outscoring New York 31-8 in the final period to secure their third straight win. Fred Hoiberg decided to ride his bench to the end after a quick start to the fourth, in the process offering an intoxicating glimpse at what could be the team's front court pairing of the future.
Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson did not play a minute in the fourth quarter, because Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic played every second. Portis (16 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting) and Mirotic (17 points, seven assists and five rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting) were each outstanding individually, and looked incredible paired together. For the first time, the Bulls had a true five-out offensive attack that featured a pristinely spaced floor and free-flowing ball movement.
In 16 minutes together, Mirotic and Portis finished +23. While that includes some minutes where Mirotic was playing small forward and Pau Gasol was at center, Mirotic and Portis were great when entrenched at the four and five. The trio of Mirotic, Portis and Doug McDermott were +20 in 10 fourth quarter minutes, combining for 28 points on 71 percent shooting from the floor. On the night, Mirotic, Portis and McDermott collectively finished 9-of-13 from three-point range.
With Portis and Mirotic sharing the floor without another big man, the Bulls finally looked like the team the front office envisioned when it replaced Tom Thibodeau with Hoiberg. This is the Bulls' max spacing look and it provided a number of easy buckets in the final period.
Just look at all the spacing on this play, with no one inside the arc and five players the Knicks had to respect from three-point range sharing the floor. Instead of the laboring offense the Bulls have produced all season, the Mirotic-Portis front court made the game easy, allowing for anyone to make simple read-and-react decisions that led to good shots:
Portis and Mirotic aren't just capable in catch-and-shoot situations -- both looked comfortable bringing the ball up the court and initiating offense early in the shot clock. Here's Portis pushing the ball to get Mirotic an open three before the Knicks could get set defensively:
And here's Mirotic pushing the ball up the court to feed Portis for an easy opportunity.
We know Niko has no problem handling the ball in transition and we know Portis relentlessly runs the floor on every possession. That could potentially mean big things for the Bulls, if not this year then into the future.
To me, the Bulls' front court puzzle is the biggest question facing the team in both the short term and long term. It's been obvious the team needs to trade a big to open up playing time for Portis and add depth on the wing for this season. Long term, with both Gasol and Joakim Noah set to hit the free agent market after this season, the Bulls have to decide if Portis and Mirotic can be a viable pairing moving forward.
Offense isn't the concern for the Mirotic-Portis pairing -- defense is. Portis projects as an above average defender, but his two biggest limitations as a player are that he lacks great jumping ability and elite length. This is someone who only averaged 1.4 blocks a game in college. Can he really be a full-time center as he matures with a weak defensive player like Mirotic next to him?
The Bulls are going to want a strong defensive center on the roster -- let this be the start of a campaign to bring back Noah at a fair price -- but there's no question that the Portis-Mirotic front court combo should be an often used change-of-pace look for Hoiberg, if nothing else.
The early returns have been fantastic. In 35 minutes together so far, Bobby and Niko have a 115.4 offensive rating and 83.4 defensive rating -- good for a +32 net rating. Obviously it's a small sample size at this point, and the defensive concerns for a Portis-Mirotic-McDermott front line in particular aren't going away. But if Friday's win over the Knicks proved anything, it's how devastating the Hoiberg Bulls can be offensively when not encumbered with traditional big men.
It was only one game, but the Portis-Mirotic pairing we saw against New York could be the start something big.