The Bulls were leading the Pacers by 12 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter when Victor Oladipo elevated for a pull-up three. It was the start of an 11-point crunch time scoring barrage for Oladipo and the start of another collapse for the Bulls. By the time he swished the go-ahead jumper with 31 seconds left, Fred Hoiberg’s players appeared to be on the brink of a total breakdown.
The thing I remember most about this game was how devastated the Bulls looked. I pleaded for someone to give Kris Dunn a hug on Twitter. He needed it. This was the third time in four games the Bulls had blown a lead of at least 17 points. It moved the team to 3-20, the worst record in the NBA, with poll position in the great tank-off.
The date was Dec. 7. It remains the Bulls’ last loss.
In their darkest hour, Fred Hoiberg spoke of the progress he saw in his team. This quote now suddenly looks prophetic.
"This one, it stings a lot," coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It's a really, really hard (loss) because we had control for the majority of it and played really good and hard unselfish basketball. The big message to our team is if we continue to play with that type of effort, if we continue to play the right way, and unselfish, we're going to start winning games."
A lot has happened since. Two impact players have entered the rotation as lesser ones have exited. Multiple teams decided to rest their stars. The Bulls suddenly can’t miss from the mid-range and opponents can’t hit from three. Most notably, the team that had the best odds of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft now sits in a tie for the league’s third worst record.
The Bulls have won six straight, and the fanbase has never felt so conflicted. In a season that hinged on losing as much as possible, the Bulls can’t stop winning. How do we reconcile with this? What am I supposed to do with red Luka Doncic jersey? Why did I waste so much time studying Slovenian???
And then I think back to Kris Dunn, distance and despondent and ready to weep. From that perspective, this Bulls’ winning streak has been a delight. This team plays hard as hell and with no sense of entitlement. They are, somehow, objectively fun to watch.
Even as the tank has been sabotaged, there are many reason to still enjoy this.
Nikola Mirotic should fetch a first round pick
That’s what I wrote on the brink of last season when Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo were about to make their Chicago debuts. The Three Alphas essentially reduced Mirotic to a bit player, a spot-up shooter as Wade dribbled aimlessly for 15 seconds and Rondo ran in circles. It would have been a tough role for anyone to succeed in and it never fit Niko’s skill set as a player.
He’s found the perfect role right now. Niko was always at his best as an offensive hub, someone who could handle the ball out past the three point line with a surprising amount of quickness and grace. Shooting was always part of his game, but never the bedrock of it. Now that Mirotic has the ball in his hands more often, the offense has opened up in ways Gar Forman and John Paxson never could have imagined.
The great irony of this winning streak is Mirotic turning into a certified star the moment the Bulls wrote him off. He’s creating offense from all three levels, he’s hitting his jumpers and he’s playing with an edge we’ve rarely seen. That steal and block in crunch time against the Sixers? Amazing. This is the Nikola Mirotic the Bulls always had but refused to recognize.
The truth is that the Bulls have never valued Mirotic. The good news is that someone else should. If he keeps playing like this, the expectation for him in a trade should be a first round pick.
David Nwaba is a hidden gem
Yes, the Bulls are 6-0 with Mirotic in the lineup. Did you realize they’re also 8-9 with David Nwaba and 1-11 without him?
Nwaba comes with an amazing story. He played DIII college ball in Hawaii before transferring to a JUCO and then to a low major in Cal Poly. He wasn’t drafted and paid D-League teams $150 to try out for them. That path has led him to Chicago, where he suddenly looks like the Bulls’ heart and soul.
Nwaba should be too short for a small forward at 6’4, yet there he was locking down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fourth quarter even as he gives up seven inches. How is this possible? It’s all about length, athleticism and defensive instincts. He has an impossible 7-foot wingspan. He’s the most athletic player on the team. And he has an innate ability for using both attributes to make impact defensive plays.
I've been catching up on the Bulls and have decided this is my favorite play of the year— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) December 13, 2017
David Nwaba swatting the shit out of Dwight Howard off the glass pic.twitter.com/GflSLev3u5
That’s Nwaba blocking Dwight Howard off the glass. He is a joy in every sense. If Robert Covington was the 76ers’ miracle of The Process, Nwaba is becoming that for the Bulls.
Kris Dunn is making major strides
Kris Dunn has never had it easy. His childhood struggle is fit for Hollywood. His basketball career was obstructed at every stage: first with back-to-back season-ending shoulder injuries at Providence, then buried by Tom Thibodeau as a rookie in Minnesota.
The talent was always there, but Dunn is still so raw, and also old for his draft class. The length, the athleticism, the ball hawk defense ... there was a lot to like. But for every great play, Dunn would make a careless turnover. We had seen it all season long.
Something has changed during this winning streak. Dunn is playing more under control. He’s burning slower defenders to the basket. He’s kicking out to spot-up shooters. And out of nowhere, he’s become an ace shooter on mid-range pull-ups:
Kris Dunn looks like a player. He can be an elite defensive point guard. He’s proving his worth as a scorer. He’s still a work in progress as a playmaker, but he’s showing flashes.
The talent was always evident. Now Dunn is turning it into production.
The Jimmy Butler trade looks better
The Bulls should have kept that No. 16 pick. They probably should have gotten an extra first rounder from Minnesota, too. They didn’t. Instead, the Bulls got three players in Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine. Dunn looks solid, Markkanen could be really good, and LaVine is already a proven scorer at just 22 years old.
The trade wasn’t ideal, but it looks a lot better than it did on draft night. And — deep sigh — John Paxson and Gar Forman deserve a lot of credit for that.
This happens more than you would think. Pacers fans are learning the same thing after trading Paul George for a player who is now better than Paul George. The point: fans are dumb and being a GM is hard.
The tank ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be
I want Doncic. To me, he’s the clear No. 1 player in this draft and someone with star potential. He would be a perfect fit for a Bulls team that still desperately needs offensive creators. It’s possible this winning streak costs the Bulls a chance at him.
That’s fine. Donovan Mitchell was the No. 13 pick last year. Kawhi Leonard went at No. 15. Giannis at No. 16. If the Bulls end up with the sixth pick instead of the first, it’s not the end of the world. Give me Mikal Bridges and I’m happy.
I also have a feeling that the NBA ... might just take care of the Bulls. The market is too big, the franchise is too much of a cash cow to be this bad. The lottery works in mysterious ways. The Bulls are due for some good luck.
The lottery will take care of itself. The Bulls are still going to lose a lot of games this season and have a high pick in June. This draft class still looks stacked within the top 10. The Bulls will get a good player.
For now, enjoy this winning streak for what it is: stunning, thrilling and completely absurd.