From an outside perspective, it appeared to be an awkward scenario, but Bobby Portis made the best of it.
In his first game after serving an eight-game suspension for his part in an Oct. 17 practice altercation with teammate Nikola Mirotic, Portis delivered the best showing of his NBA career, at least statistically.
Portis finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and led a furious fourth-quarter comeback that fell short in a 119-114 loss at Toronto on Tuesday.
“I was just happy to play basketball again,” Portis said Wednesday, adding it was difficult to watch his teammates on TV and cheer from afar the past three weeks. “The biggest thing is just being able to live my dream again. Like I said (Tuesday), I got it taken away from me.”
Portis essentially took the dream away himself. Whatever happened in the moments preceding the practice altercation, there’s no justification for throwing a punch that sends a teammate to the hospital.
The Bulls could have released or traded Portis, but they chose not to and he rewarded their patience with a strong opening game.
Of course, the challenge is to do that every night. Portis has had exactly one 20-point, 10-rebound game in each of his three NBA seasons.
“I don’t really care about stats. I want to win,” he said. “I’m mad we lost last night. We fought so hard to come back and ended up short. I’m in the gym every day working on my craft and my game and trying to tune up every little weakness in my game. It’s paid off so far.”
Portis said he played pickup games in Maywood and other spots to stay sharp. An NBA player doesn’t just walk into random pickup games, obviously. He said agent Reggie Brown, the brother of Bulls assistant Randy Brown, helped set them up.
“There’s nothing like playing ball against 5-on-5,” Portis said. “You have to hit a body or two to feel the contact. That’s a different kind of shape. (Brown) always made me go play pickup even when I didn’t really want to. He made me go to stay in shape.”
Portis’ next opportunity to get on the court will be Friday at the United Center against Indiana. It will be interesting to see the reception he gets from the home fans, who are well aware of the punch that left Mirotic with facial fractures and a concussion.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Portis said. “But at this moment, I’m just happy to be playing again and it’s been a great first game for me back and I can’t wait to keep going throughout the season.”
The question hanging over the Bulls now is whether Portis and Mirotic can coexist on the same team. The two have had no contact since that altercation. Portis has said he tried to apologize, but his calls and texts were not returned.
The feeling here is the other Bulls hope the two players can work things out and Mirotic eventually returns. For now, Portis is back in the fold while Mirotic does light exercise on his own at the Advocate Center. Coach Fred Hoiberg made a point of saying the players love Portis as a teammate.
So maybe the Bulls will sit tight and hope Mirotic comes around to the idea of rejoining the team in its current makeup. It was a curious choice to re-sign Mirotic this summer, considering he has been maddeningly inconsistent in three NBA seasons and the Bulls had already acquired Lauri Markkanen, the obvious future at power forward.
Mirotic signed for two years and $25 million, but the second season is a team option, so it’s possible he could be an attractive trade target for a team looking to clear some payroll.