April 14, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) Nikola Mirotic still sometimes makes a rookie mistake.

Not the kind that often trips up first-year players. There are no complaints from the Chicago Bulls about his defense or his work ethic.

The problem is that Mirotic has the green light and doesn't always take it.

''I hate when he hesitates. Hate it when he hesitates,'' Derrick Rose said. ''But I think he'll grow out of it.''

Adds coach Tom Thibodeau: ''I don't want him hesitating. That's the only thing I get concerned with, is if he hesitates. I want him to let it go.''

And the way Mirotic shoots, that's understandable.

He shoots it so well, he's a leading candidates for rookie of the year.

The Serbian forward who arrived in the NBA by way of the Spanish league proved again how valuable he is Monday night in Brooklyn, when he made six 3-pointers and scored 26 points in a 113-86 victory that guaranteed the Bulls home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

''With Niko on the floor it's like another dimension, because the way that he spaces the floor,'' Rose said.

Yet Mirotic, who averaged 20.8 points in March and led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring for the month - LeBron James and Russell Westbrook ranked second and third - still needed a reminder to fire away.

''First half, in the locker room, some of my players, they told me like, `Niko, don't think, just shoot the ball, because you are wide open. Don't pump fake,''' Mirotic said.

''These guys, they are right, I just need to shoot. Because sometimes when I think, I miss the shots. When I don't think, I make it.''

Other rookie of the year candidates such as Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins or Philadelphia's Nerlens Noel may have had better individual seasons, but no first-year player has been more important to a winning team.

Mirotic is averaging 10.1 points as one of two Bulls to appear in all 81 games and has reminded Thibodeau of New Orleans center Omer Asik, who played a reliable role when he was with Chicago.

''Obviously they're different players, but they're both very serious-minded,'' Thibodeau said. ''It's important to them. Great drive, great intelligence, and those type of guys always get better.

''And as I said, I think it goes back to who he is and the way he approaches things. And he wants to get better, and he's never satisfied. So if he has a good game, he's not having a parade. He comes in the gym and he works and that's what he should do.''

Mirotic was selected in the first round in 2011 by the Houston Rockets, who dealt his rights to Minnesota. He was later acquired by Chicago but continued to star for Real Madrid, winning MVP of the 2014 Spanish Cup final. He came to the NBA this season and quickly proved himself by winning Eastern Conference rookie of the month in December, but his true value to the Bulls was shown when they were short-handed last month.

His 136 fourth-quarter points were 37.1 percent of Chicago's total, and three times in March he came off the bench to collect 28 points and eight rebounds.

Much of that success came as a power forward, where the 6-foot-10 Mirotic has an advantage on the perimeter. That was the case Monday, when starting center Joakim Noah sat out with a hamstring injury and was replaced by backup big man Taj Gibson.

But when Noah, Gibson and Pau Gasol are all playing, they will get most of the minutes at those positions, meaning Mirotic may be matched against quicker small forwards.

''So the challenge going forward is to be able to be effective and stay positive on the floor not being wide open sometimes, or not being able to take 4s off the dribble, and still be helpful and effective with less minutes on the floor,'' Gasol said.

And not be afraid to shoot when he does get out there. Mirotic believes his occasional loss of confidence is normal.

''It's a big adjustment this year, so it's a lot of up and downs, but the good thing is I'm playing much better in the last part of the season,'' Mirotic said. ''So right now I'm trying to work hard and prepare myself for the playoffs.''

The Bulls are going to need him.

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

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