Mirotic-led Bulls look to stay hot vs. Jazz

CHICAGO — Nikola Mirotic is not short on confidence to begin with, but these days, the numbers are backing him up.

Before the Chicago Bulls’ 108-85 victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday, Mirotic announced the Bulls would be 3-0 in games he has appeared in this season.

After Mirotic scored 24 points and teammate Bobby Portis added 23, the Bulls — who had lost 10 straight games before Mirotic made his season debut Dec. 8 in Charlotte — won their third consecutive game.

Now, the Bulls, owners of the NBA’s second-worst record (6-20), hope to continue their winning ways on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz at the United Center.

Mirotic has been a major reason for Chicago’s recent success.

“Niko’s been awesome,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the Monday win. “(That’s) obviously an understatement in getting him back and winning all three games.”

However, Portis and the Bulls’ bench have also played a key role. On Monday, Chicago’s reserves accounted for 55 points against the Celtics. The Bulls were without rookie forward Lauri Markkanen, who had back spasm. Mirotic replaced him in the starting lineup.

Hoiberg said Monday he doesn’t believe Markkanen will miss a lot of time with a back issue that also flared up in the preseason. But Mirotic, who missed the first 23 games of the season with facial fractures and a concussion he sustained in a fight at practice with Portis in October, has established a bond with Portis on the floor.

It has proven to be a winning combination although both Portis and Mirotic would just as soon leave their past actions in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t want to keep talking about me and Niko,” Portis said after the win over Boston. “We’re just playing our games, playing off of each other and just trying to play within Fred’s offense. Our second unit has been clicking real well. It’s been fun.”

The Jazz (13-14) enter Wednesday’s game having lost three straight. Utah has been idle since Saturday, when it opened a six-game road trip with a 117-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Jazz returned to Salt Lake City following that game and traveled to Chicago on Tuesday as a way to refuel before they play three games in four days, starting with Wednesday’s contest.

Utah beat the Bulls 110-80 on Nov. 22, which started a six-game winning streak.

The Wednesday meeting could mark the return of leading scorer Rodney Hood, who has missed the past seven games due to ankle soreness. Hood, who averages 17.7 points per game, participated in a non-contact workout on Monday, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Guard/forward Joe Johnson, who has missed the past 20 games with wrist tendon instability, also took part in that workout with the hopes of joining Hood and the rest of his Jazz teammates on the rest of the road trip.

Utah guard Raul Neto is also uncertain for the Wednesday game after he left the Saturday loss and entered concussion protocol. The Jazz had not announced whether any of the three players would see action against the Bulls.

“We’ve had a tough run of the year with different guys out,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles said Monday, according to the Tribune. “It’s nice to have most of our group back. Obviously (Hood and Johnson are) two pretty key pieces of what we do.”