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Nikola Mirotic talks exit from team

The question made Nikola Mirotic smile and promptly interrupt with a “thank you for saying that.’’

The stretch-four didn’t even necessarily have to answer from that point on when asked if he felt underappreciated in his time with the Bulls.

His initial reaction said it all.

Still, he felt the need to explain himself a bit more before Sunday’s preseason opener against the Bulls, especially with it being his first time on the United Center floor since his former team traded him to the New Orleans Pelicans in February.

“It means a lot to hear that word,’’ Mirotic said of the “unappreciated’’ label. “But I can’t think that way.

“I’m blessed the Bulls gave me the opportunity to be here. I’m not saying they used me the best way they could to improve my game. But just having the opportunity was great and I’m thankful. I had a great end of the season in New Orleans. We went to the semifinals, and that’s all I wanted. To play in the playoffs and have a chance to improve my game. That’s all I want to keep doing.’’

That’s why dwelling on how things ended with the Bulls isn’t a priority.

Not that Mirotic won’t talk about it, especially with how public the issues became, but it’s not a chapter he rereads.

A quick refresher: Mirotic ticked off some in the Bulls organization last summer when he decided to bulk up by adding 20 pounds of muscle on his own, rather than working with many of his teammates. When he came into camp and was named the starter, not everyone was thrilled.

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Bobby Portis and Mirotic had a history of several run-ins over the years, including several shoves, when they frequently faced off against each in practice. No one saw the incident that occurred on Oct. 17 coming, in which Mirotic allegedly stepped toward Portis in an aggressive manner during practice, and Portis punched him in the face.

The damage was significant. Mirotic’s jaw was broken and he was sidelined for almost two months with concussion-like symptoms.

Mirotic eventually came back, leading the Bulls to six consecutive victories, as well as 10 wins over a 12-game span. Mirotic was the leading scorer in five of those games, and coexisted on the court with Portis at a high level, despite the two not speaking off the court.

But he wanted out immediately after the punch was thrown, and that wish was granted when he was traded to New Orleans on Feb. 1
for a first-round pick that the Bulls eventually cashed in when they drafted Chandler Hutchison.

Mirotic has excelled with the Pelicans, and maybe that’s why he’s not really looking back.

“It’s about moving forward,’’ Mirotic said.

While tendinitis in his Achilles tendon sidelined him Sunday, he did make one point very clear. While he somewhat forgives Portis for what happened, he would never forget.

“Sometimes you don’t have to talk,’’ Mirotic said. “Sometimes that silence, just being professional and shaking hands . . . when we were playing together we were actually playing great, and sometimes that’s enough.

“We were respecting each other, we knew what was going on and that it wasn’t going to change, so there’s no reason now to talk about it anymore.’’

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