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Tom Thibodeau Has No Excuse for Sitting Nikola Mirotic in Series vs. Cavs

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2015

AP Images

Two minutes in Game 1, at the end of the first half. Seven minutes in Game 2, mostly in garbage time.

That’s what forward Nikola Mirotic’s minutes have looked like in the second-round series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers that now goes back to Chicago tied at one game apiece.

This isn’t the first time a Tom Thibodeau rotation decision has caused confusion. Those decisions are responsible in part for why his relationship with the Bulls' front office has gone to the place it has. He has his guys, and they’re the ones who are going to get any minutes that are up for grabs. It’s a reality the Bulls have had to live with all year.

Still, Mirotic’s disappearance from the rotation after a successful rookie season is tough to explainespecially in a series where his uses are evident.

“He’s going to be situational right now,” Thibodeau told reporters this week. “But we need him.”

The Bulls have needed him all year. No one else on their roster can take opposing big men out of the paint like he can.

Even with the Cavs as short-handed as they are, they have the upper hand simply because they have the two best players in the series in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Bulls’ best chance to win has always been to wear down James.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 6: Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls goes for the lay up against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the NBA Playoffs on May 6, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NO
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

A big man who can make Jamesor one of the Cavs’ bigschase him around the perimeter opens up the paint for point guard Derrick Rose to be his most effective and forward Pau Gasol to get more of the open mid-range looks he feasted on in the first game.

The Bulls have that player, and he’s been effective in exactly those situations this season.

Thibodeau, for all the low-hanging jokes to be made about the rigidity of his rotations, has proven himself not completely incapable of change.

He benched backup guard Kirk Hinrich at times in the Bulls’ first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks and has shown a willingness to roll with Mirotic and up-and-coming forward Tony Snell this season when their play warranted it.

So it makes no sense why, in this series, Mirotic can hardly get on the floor.

Foul trouble for forward Tristan Thompson forced Cavs coach David Blatt to play Kendrick Perkins in Game 2, and 34-year-old James Jones and 35-year-old Mike Miller have seen time in stretch 4 roles in Kevin Love’s absence.

Down by double digits, those are times when deploying Mirotic to create mismatches would make perfect sense.

If that isn’t a situation where Mirotic gets some run, what will be?

Mirotic’s lack of playing time in this series would be more explainable if he was still feeling ill effects from the left leg injury he suffered in the first round. But after missing Game 3 of the Bucks series, he hasn’t shown many ill effects.

He certainly showed none in his limited stretches of play at the end of the second and fourth quarters on Wednesday.

The minutes he got felt perfunctory, even though he was effective, scoring eight points in seven minutes and showing more mobility on the defensive end than either Joakim Noah or Gasol.

Apr 27, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) looks for a rebound against Milwaukee Bucks center John Henson (31) in game five of the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-US
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Thibodeau not using Mirotic in the first game, which the Bulls controlled end to end, was more defensible. Gasol and forward Taj Gibson had Cleveland’s bigs on the ropes, and there was no need to break up the flow of the game. That’s one thing Thibodeau doesn’t like to do: mess with what’s working.

Unfortunately, he can sometimes be the last person to realize that what once worked no longer does.

The Bulls may have stolen home-court advantage from the Cavs in the first two games of this series, but they still have a very limited margin for error.

That’s the reality against any James-led team, especially for a squad with as many question marks—Noah’s health, shooting guard Jimmy Butler’s fatigue, Rose’s consistency—as the Bulls have.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Love’s injury was exactly the kind of break Chicago needed to have a real chance at stealing this series and finally getting past James in the playoffs after years of not being able to clear that hurdle. But to capitalize on this opportunity, the Bulls need to maximize every advantage they have.

One of those advantages is sitting on the bench, unable to get consistent minutes in the playoffs after finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting.

Whether the Bulls win or lose this series hinges on far greater factors than just the minutes of a rookie big man. However, it’s impossible to look at the way things have unfolded so far and not wonder why Thibodeau has decided Mirotic can’t help.

Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin.

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