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NBA AM: Mirotic “Frustrated” Through Struggles

Nikola Mirotic is struggling this year, and he’s the first to express frustration with his offensive woes.

Joel Brigham

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It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago, Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He was every bit as impressive as the Chicago front office hoped he would be when they paid to bring him over from Spain in the summer of 2014. Scoring 10.2 points per game in just over 20 minutes a night, Mirotic looked well on his way to being the franchise cornerstone he was drafted to be.

His sophomore season was at times disappointing, but he still saw some growth – playing a little more, scoring a little more and knocking down a higher percentage of his three-point shots. However, something about the 2016-17 NBA season so far has been frustrating for Mirotic. His scoring has dropped from 11.8 PPG to 8.5 PPG this season, his three-point shooting has dropped all the way to 28.1 percent and his timidity offensively has been frustrating to watch as he’s moved beyond excessive pump fakes to weird double-clutch shots and reticent dishes when he’s anywhere near the bucket.

In short, the shots just aren’t falling for Mirotic this year, and he knows it.

“I am very frustrated,” Mirotic told Basketball Insiders. “Shooting 1-for-13 the last two games is bad. I shot 0-for-11 from three the last few games. I know that I could at least be 5-for-11 or 6-for-11. It’s frustrating, but I can do it. I’ll spend more hours on the court trying to feel better and feel more comfortable, but I know I’m not making shots and not feeling great offensively.”

There have been some truly atrocious offensive games for Mirotic this year, including three where he didn’t hit a single shot. When asked if his shots feel as bad as they look sometimes, he laughed without directly answering.

“I think I just need to hit a few in a row and to make a couple of threes,” Mirotic explained. “Some of these shots during games, I felt great. I felt the ball would go in, but just that there was no way I could score. The thing is I just need to keep working, keep shooting during practice and during the game because my teammates want me to soot. I know I still have the confidence of my teammates and my coaching staff.”

Especially in the absence of Doug McDermott, who has missed the last nine games with concussion symptoms, Mirotic was supposed to have separated himself a little as a key member of the team’s bench. Instead, Mirotic and the rest of Chicago’s reserves have been getting outscored by dozens and dozens of points every night. Despite all of this, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the state of the team’s second unit.

“We can score a lot, but there’s some games when the ball is not going in,” Mirotic said. “We are fine. We have a very good bench, very good chemistry playing together, and hopefully Doug will get back soon because we need him. We need points from the bench, especially because we are not making shots right now.”

In the meantime, Mirotic is trying to do the things he can control, like defending and rebounding. He is seeing a reasonable measure of success there, averaging a career-high 5.6 rebounds per game this season. He also had a key block at the end of Friday’s game against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and in that regard he feels as though he’s making improvements.

“My goal this year is defense,” Mirotic said. “A lot of people look at me as just offense and if I’m going to score shots, but I don’t want to be just a shooter. I want to do some different things because I believe in myself and I know I can rebound the ball. I know I can improve a lot on defense, so that’s one of my goals.”

Mirotic was one of Spain’s biggest stars before coming to the NBA, but he continues to struggle to make the transition to this version of the game. He is trying, though, and while it’s frustrating at times to bear witness to the growing pains, he really is maturing as a player.

“It’s very different in international games,” Mirotic said. “Playing in Europe is easier because there’s not that many games, the physicality is completely different. I’m just trying to put some weight on my body. I spend a lot of hours in the weight room, and when I’m on the court and my opponents defend my shots, I want to try and make some different impact even if the ball is not going into the rim.”

And the team is winning. Chicago remains one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, only 2.5 games back of the conference lead, so the team does have the ability to weather some storms while Mirotic finds his shot.

“The key for me is that the team is winning,” he said. “That’s the key. Of course I want myself to make those shots and play better, but for now I’m going to help the rest of my teammates try to make the simple plays and rebound the ball.”

Luckily, Chicago hasn’t needed big offensive contributions out of Mirotic so far, but to maintain their current level of success, he’s going to have to start chipping in sooner or later. As someone who looked like one of the league’s brightest young stars just two short seasons ago, Mirotic is coming to a point where his game will have to take another step forward.

For now, he’s going backward, and even he says that’s frustrating. The best way to change that, though, is to play better. For the sake of Chicago’s dismal bench, let’s hope he’s got it in him.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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