Derrick Rose had his best performance of the series after hitting a game-winning, buzzer-beating banked three-point shot to give the Chicago Bulls a 99-96 win and 2-1 lead in the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Why is that? Because of a major adjustment from Tom Thibodeau and key play from Rookie of the Year runner-up Nikola Mirotic.
Thibodeau decided to go small against the Cavaliers at various points in this game, deciding to play lineups with Mike Dunleavy and Mirotic as stretch fours. It was sacrificial for the Bulls, on defense and rebounding specifically. But it made things more difficult for a couple reasons: the ability to stretch the floor offensively and have the quickness on defense to not switch on the pick and role.
Bulls lineups with a Taj Gibson/Mirotic frontline brings up mismatches offensively and has enough defensive prowess to make up for the lack of size. Any time the Bulls play small with Derrick Rose, lanes open up his route to the rim. It truly allows Rose to shine without having two bigs (between Gibson, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol) clogging the paint while he attacks it. The Bulls are best off playing Mirotic at the four, as his strengths greatly outweigh the flaws he has on defense.
Thibodeau is hard on rookies as they enter the league. It takes a lot to earn his trust. As a rookie, Mirotic played more meaningful minutes as the regular season wore on. In the postseason, a lot of the same things occur for rookies and young players under Thibodeau. Mirotic is earning his trust to play quality minutes in the biggest games of their season.
Mirotic played only two minutes in game one, not scoring a point. Game two, Mirotic played seven minutes, scoring eight meaningless points after Cleveland blew open a 20-point lead in the first quarter. Last night, Mirotic played alongside Gasol in the second quarter – his most important stretch of the series – and it looked like a totally different Bulls team.
It was Mirotic’s best game of the playoffs; he played 22 minutes, tying his playoff high, and finished with 12 points (his first game scoring in double-figures), eight rebounds and two steals while getting to the free throw line. With Gasol dealing with a hamstring injury he re-injured in the third quarter last night, going with Mirotic at the four is an option Thibodeau will continue to use.
Although defensively Mirotic still has some flaws, he is mobile and able to stay in front of power forwards and some small forwards, thanks to him playing out of position most of the season. Mirotic has long arms, which helps defensive rebounding and getting into the passing lanes. Cleveland used a lot of pick and roll with Jimmy Butler and Mirotic switching successfully most of last night, which is a testament to Niko for being ready for those moments.
Last night gave Mirotic the confidence needed to give big-time playoff minutes, and his presence on the floor gave Rose enough of a threat for him to pull-up for a game-winning three to beat the Cavaliers. The Bulls will need more of that from Mirotic in this series for them to overcome the best player in the world, LeBron James, and his Cleveland Cavaliers.