It was Rose’s third serious knee injury in less than three years, and in the grand scheme of things actually contained some good news: It wasn’t a season-ending injury. Four to six weeks? Hey, fantastic! Usually when Derrick gets hurt, it’s four to six months! We can deal with four to six weeks!
And they can. If there’s anything Tom Thibodeau’s club has shown over the last three years, it is that the absence of Rose does not impact their postseason hopes. With or without Rose, the Bulls are a playoff team.
But when All-Star backcourt mate Jimmy Butler went down for at least three weeks with a sprained elbow, well, that was a horror film Bulls fans would prefer not to watch. For the next month, Chicago will be jockeying for the Central Division title and postseason seeding without its starting backcourt, which is responsible for nearly 39 points, almost nine assists and nine rebounds per game plus outstanding perimeter defense.
Rose and Butler account for nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s scoring. In their absence, someone has to step up. And this week, that someone was rookie Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic has had by far his best stretch of the season, leading the Bulls in scoring in three straight games. He scored a season-high 29 points with nine rebounds in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, added 23 with eight boards in a win over Washington and went for 26 with eight boards in Thursday’s win over Oklahoma City.
Mirotic’s breakout this week was somewhat surprising. Like many rookies, he has had trouble developing consistency. In November and December, he had a stretch where he scored in double figures 14 times in 20 games. But before his recent hot streak, he had scored in double figures just twice in his last 19 contests and even was limited to single-digit minutes on four occasions.
Part of Mirotic’s struggles this season can be traced to Chicago’s seemingly annual issues with injuries. With his 6-10 size and ability to shoot from distance and put the ball on the floor, Mirotic is best used as a stretch power forward. But Mike Dunleavy Jr. missed a huge chunk of time and Thibodeau also used Mirotic at small forward, where he has struggled with the speed of opposing wings.
With backup power forward Taj Gibson also out with a sprained ankle, Mirotic has stepped into his slot in the rotation. The Montenegro native comes off the bench to spell both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and gives the Bulls a different look than the conventional high-low with two bigs.
What Mirotic has shown over the last three games is that he is not your cliche European player who stands behind the arc and hoists threes because he is “allergic to paint,” as Brent Barry once said. He shot eight free throws against the Clippers, 11 against the Wizards and 16 against the Thunder, including 10 in the pivotal fourth quarter.
“He has been battling things,” Thibodeau said afterward. “He had a good mix going tonight. He did not shoot the three like he normally does, but just the threat of him being out there opens up the defense. He has the ability to put it on the floor also, and him getting to the free-throw line was big for us.”
Given Thibodeau’s general disdain for rookies, Mirotic is actually having a good season. He is averaging 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 17.8 minutes, although his overall shooting (.399) and 3-point shooting (.335) could be better.
The Bulls need it to be better if they are going to hold their current seed in the East. Right now, Chicago is second with a 39-23 mark. But that is just one-half game ahead of both Toronto (38-23) and Central Division foe Cleveland (39-24). And five of Chicago’s next six games are on the road, where Mirotic has been a better shooter but a less aggressive scorer.
Rose, Butler and Gibson aren’t due back until later this month, so the pressure is on Mirotic to continue to produce. If he does, he just might give Andrew Wiggins a final run for Rookie of the Year.
On to the rankings.
1. ANDREW WIGGINS, F, MINNESOTA: He won Western Conference Rookie of the Month for the fourth straight month, and this time there was more than individual numbers. The Timberwolves went 5-6 in February, by far their best month of the season. Since getting fed up with the rookie whistle and drawing his first technical, Wiggins is averaging 8.6 free throws per game. Smart kid. LAST WEEK: 1
2. NERLENS NOEL, F-C, PHILADELPHIA: Maybe his best week of the season. Noel reached double figures in scoring and rebounding three times each and had two double-doubles, running his season total to nine. He shot 7-of-7 in the loss to Toronto and had five blocks and four steals in the loss to Oklahoma City. He is averaging 12.1 points in eight games since MCW left town. Coincidence? LAST WEEK: 3
3. NIKOLA MIROTIC, F, CHICAGO: Even with a pedestrian outing vs. Minnesota, Mirotic’s numbers for the week were 21.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 22-of-51 overall shooting and 40 free throws. He was just 7-of-26 from the arc, but that touch should return as it is one of the foundations of his game. He had just two 20-point games this season before notching three in a row this week. LAST WEEK: 8
4. MARCUS SMART, G, BOSTON: He was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February, when he averaged 32.5 minutes, 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.3 blocks and 1.6 steals. In 31.5 minutes, Noel averaged 10.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals. But Philadelphia was 3-7 and trying to lose, while Boston was 7-4 and trying to win, so Smart gets it. LAST WEEK: 4
5. ELFRID PAYTON, G, ORLANDO: He had his worst week in a while as he averaged just 4.3 points on 6-of-23 shooting with 4.3 assists and 2.0 rebounds in three games. Payton also gave away some minutes at point guard to Victor Oladipo as interim coach James Borrego experiments a little bit. He is second among rookies with 1.55 steals per game and just outside the top 20 overall. LAST WEEK: 2
6. JORDAN CLARKSON, G, LA LAKERS: He scored in double figures in all four games this week, averaging 14.3 points. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that Clarkson doesn’t have much of a 3-pointer (6-of-17 in that stretch) or get to the foul line often (four FTs in that stretch). You can poke fun at the Lakers rebuilding, but GM Mitch Kupchak had a pretty good draft. LAST WEEK: 6
7. LANGSTON GALLOWAY, G, NEW YORK: His streak of double-figure games ended at four with consecutive six-point outings as his poor shooting finally caught up with him. Galloway was just 12-of-34 over four games last week, dropping his season number to an unacceptable 38 percent. He continues to go to the glass, however, averaging 5.5 rebounds for the week. Needs a strong finish for an All-Rookie nod. LAST WEEK: 7
8. ADREIAN PAYNE, F, MINNESOTA: He has been playing rotation minutes since arriving from Atlanta in a trade and has performed pretty well. In four games this week, Payne averaged 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in 24.8 minutes while serving as a reserve and understudy to Kevin Garnett, which should help his growth dramatically. But we’re still not seeing the 3-pointers he knocked down in college. LAST WEEK: NR
9. MITCH McGARY, F, OKLAHOMA CITY: He has alternated complete donuts and nice contributions the last six games, which is no way to remain on this table. For example, McGary had a season-high 20 points and nine boards in last week’s loss to Portland, then didn’t score in 10 minutes of a win over the Lakers. He played just two minutes in the loss to Chicago, which may mean something. LAST WEEK: 9
10. JUSUF NURKIC, C, DENVER: Didn’t play a single minute this week, missing four games with a badly swollen ankle that has exhibited several colors. Former coach Brian Shaw indicated that the injury was so bad that Nurkic might not play again this season. Without him, the Nuggets don’t have a center, and the tough guy from Bosnia won’t be here next week unless he gets back on the court. LAST WEEK: 5
DROPOUTS: K.J. McDaniels, F, Houston (10)
FIVE TO WATCH: Markel Brown, G, Brooklyn; Tyler Ennis, G, Milwaukee; Rodney Hood, G, Utah; Tyler Johnson, G, Miami; James Young, G, Boston.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.