Perhaps it’s no coincidence the team has rebounded from losing 10 of 15 to win three straight with Snell playing his best of his career the last three games.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls beat Kings for third straight win

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By Sam Smith | 2.11.2015 | 1:04 a.m. CT

The Bulls are back! Well, perhaps that may be a bit premature given how they endured in New Orleans after Anthony Davis was injured and survived in Orlando because a young team with an interim coach panicked. And then Tuesday the Bulls pulled away from a deteriorating Sacramento Kings team apparently within days of playing for its third coach this season.

But back to the good news:

By a 104-86 margin, the Bulls dominated the Kings—who do have All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins—with big time games from Pau Gasol with 26 points and 16 rebounds, his 13th consecutive double/double and league most 34th, a career high 24 points and four of six threes from Tony Snell, and a near flawless 23 points, seven assists and zero turnovers from Derrick Rose.

“Yes (it did feel like a more complete game), but we can’t get big headed,” said Rose. “We still have a long way to go. We still have to get everyone on the same page. We are getting better each game. Even in our losses, we improve in some quarters. It’s one game; we’ve got to keep this going. The same mentality we had the previous games, we have to make sure we come out and be the aggressor every game. I like the way we are playing. We are moving the ball, the defensive side we are helping each other, we are rebounding. But we can always improve in every area.”

So it was three straight wins and the first game in a month with the starting five back together as Mike Dunleavy returned from an ankle injury. That five is now 13-3, though it didn’t last long. Jimmy Butler couldn’t play in the second half after aggravating his shoulder strain from Sunday’s game in Orlando. It came on a blind pick early in the second quarter from Reggie Evans. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Butler probably would have an MRI Wednesday. Thibodeau said he hoped Butler could play in Thursday’s final game before the All-Star break.

Which, as regular season games go, is fairly significant given it’s against the streaking Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 2-0 against the Bulls this season with a final game between the teams April 5. Though Atlanta leads the conference, the Cavs still are considered the team to beat in the East and have been the hottest team in the league.

"It's a critical game," said Gasol. "We have to get them back."

Added Dunleavy: “I thought we had a great shootaround (Tuesday); good spirit, moved the ball around, went through the stuff we wanted to do and performed well in the game. Hopefully, we can have more of those. Most important now is to get this win going into the break. If we can do that we’ll have won four in a row and I think we’ll be feeling pretty good about ourselves for the second half push.”

The Bulls moved to 33-20, tied with Washington for third in the Eastern Conference and one game ahead of the Cavaliers. The Bulls are just 14-11 at home and at something of a crossroads of their season. They’ve played better, somewhat tougher defensively, though again were outrebounded Tuesday, this time by a whopping 45-33 and 13-5 on the offensive boards. But there remains this disconnect of sorts with Thibodeau emphasizing the defensive edge while the roster seems a bit more suited for offensive flow.

The Bulls achieved that improved flow Tuesday with 52.5 percent shooting and 11 fast break points with just seven turnovers. With Dunleavy back and Snell playing more and making threes, the lane looked a lot less like a Loop intersection in rush hour. Rose was able to have more freedom driving. And when the Kings continued to trap him, Rose passed to Gasol for a series of mid range jump shots. Gasol shot 11 of 15 and Snell nine of 11.

“You just play basketball,” said Gasol, who is on a career best streak as he prepares to be an All-Star game starter against his brother Sunday. “I play the right way, I play hard, I try to help my team to win and right now I’m playing at a high level. I just want to keep it going. I don’t want the (double/double) streak to be a distraction for me or my teammates.

“It’s always nice when you get into a rhythm and get into that zone,” added Gasol of his 13-point third quarter when he nearly outscored the Kings and the Bulls broke open the game. “Everything just flows and you play very confidently. You feel like every time you touch the ball and have an opportunity to shoot it that it will go in. So it’s nice to have those types of games because there are going to be others where it is not going to go that way and it will be a little harder. But when it happens you have to welcome it with open arms and enjoy it.”

As the Bulls did with Snell, who may be the answer to some of the shooting issues, especially from three-point.

Snell has a nice shooting stroke with a high arc, though he’s bounced back and forth off the bench, starting for Dunleavy and then even not playing, like against Houston last week.

“Just coaching decisions,” said Thibodeau, who is prickly about his rotation choices. “We need consistency from him. He played well tonight, (so) he’s going to play. You’ve got to base it on performance. You can’t base it on anything but performance.”

Like just about every coach, Thibodeau runs hot and cold with young players. And Snell clearly has not been one of his favorites. But Snell can be frustrating. He’s played listlessly at times, often seemingly unsure if or when to shoot or make a play. He’s also unusually taciturn, a serious minded kid who works hard but says little and expresses almost no emotion. Joakim Noah famously upbraided him last season for failing to meet Noah coming off the court with a leaping body bump after a particularly big play. Though Snell is much better at that and appears to have worked on the bump in the summer as well.

But the players will all say how committed Snell is, that he is always in the gym and doesn’t get down about the snubs from his coach.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence the team has rebounded from losing 10 of 15 to win three straight with Snell playing his best of his career the last three games. In that stretch, Snell is averaging 17 points and shooting 11 of 19 on threes in 35.6 minutes per game.

“We all go through our struggles,” said Snell. “Just have to keep fighting through and move forward. It felt good; all the hard work I’m putting in the gym, it’s paying off. It’s given me more game experience and confidence to be out there and play. It’s all credit to my teammates; they got me involved. If I go in, try to do the best I can. If not, cheer my team on. I've been through it last year. It's nothing new. You never know when your name gets called. My job is to just stay ready at all times.”

So give Thibodeau this: Produce and you play.

There’s really nothing wrong with that, though you have to get the chance. Snell is starting to with the injuries.

Thibodeau was no fan of Omer Asik when Asik came to the Bulls in 2010. But when Noah got hurt, he had to play Asik. Asik played well and became a regular.

But Snell has fans among his teammates, and a big one is Rose. No one suggests lineups, but Rose has quietly been lobbying for Snell. Rose knows Snell can shoot and thus spread the floor. Similarly with Dunleavy, which was why his return was important. They have roles to play and have been valuable, but lately the Bulls have been starting Kirk Hinrich, who was out Tuesday with turf toe, Noah and Butler along with Gasol. There’s not a single three-point shooter among them. Neither Hinrich or Noah draw much defensive attention outside and Butler prefers to attack and shoot mid range. So Rose often has been thwarted trying to get to the basket. It’s why he’s finished so much less often, committed more turnovers and shot threes. Someone has to help get the defense to come out.

The opposition generally has had five pairs of feet in the paint. And with Gasol also following orders of post plays being called. Perhaps it was no coincidence the Bulls big quarter was the third when Snell started with Dunleavy. Not to suggest Butler isn’t vital. And he is a deserving All-Star. It would be a huge blow to the Bulls to have to face the Cavs and LeBron James Thursday without Butler.

But with the three point threats of Dunleavy and Snell and the way Dunleavy moves himself and the ball, the court was wide open in the third quarter as Snell opened with a three and then got a driving dunk, Rose motored in easily for a layup and Gasol was consistently wide open as the Kings tried to trap Rose. So Rose passed back for Gasol midrange shots. Kings defenders, as interested as they were, had to lay off because of the weak side threats of Dunleavy and Snell. Of course, it helped that Gasol wasn’t missing. The Bulls hit the Kings with a 19-4 run to start the third for a 76-53 lead and the game was pretty much over.

“Tony was huge,” said Rose. “He let me know that he is going to be fine by how hard he works. He is always consistent and always professional at such a young age. No matter what goes on, he always has his head up. It is not a surprise to me because I see how hard he works. He is the first one in the gym, he deserves everything coming his way. He added length with his wingspan. We needed someone to guard (Kings high scorer Rudy) Gay; his scoring of the ball was really big.

“Mike, the way he spreads the floor is huge,” Rose added. “He is a guy who creates space. You can’t leave him; you always have to keep an eye on him. He knows the game, he never gets in the way of any play, he plays his heart out on defense, and tonight he followed through.”

It was the Bulls from the start, though it’s a disorganized and discouraged Kings team, 18-33 and hearing reports interim coach Ty Corbin is out this weekend for George Karl. After the Kings led 12-11, the Bulls led the rest of the way as Rose took over with a transition fast break score and a mid range jumper and then got another of his five first quarter assists finding Gasol. Snell added a pair of threes and Butler slammed a Rose lob for a 30-26 Bulls lead after one.

Early in the second quarter, Butler took that bruising blind screen from Evans and had a few words for him afterward. Cousins was relatively in control except for amazed shock every time he didn’t get a foul call or was called for a foul. He also almost had a little scrum with Noah when Noah early in the third quarter went to high five Gasol and teammates after a good defensive play and also high fived Cousins by accident as they were all close. Cousins briefly looked to retaliate some way, but the Kings weren’t that motivated.

Though Butler stayed in the game in the second quarter, he could not come back for the second half and said after the game his shoulder remained sore. The Bulls reserves have been ineffective of late. But Snell’s presence helped and they took a 44-33 lead. The Kings scored seven straight as this Bulls team has become one that takes a breath rather than blowing a team away.

But the Bulls closed the second quarter strong with the starters back, though Snell stayed in. Rose had a drive for a three-point play, a pull up three pointer and an iso jumper to close out the half ahead 57-49. That third quarter run effectively ended it, though Gasol late in the fourth made a terrific recovery of a Dunleavy miss and then threw a lookaway pass to Taj Gibson for a slam dunk exclamation.

Joakim Noah had just two points and four rebounds, but he did a brilliant job holding off Cousins early in the game and keeping Cousins out of the offense until the Bulls could take control. Gasol doesn’t often play the stretch four, but he did a reasonable job with Jason Thompson early and then did well on Cousins when Noah was in foul trouble. And Gibson added three steals and a pair of power dunks.

After the Sunday Orlando game there were some media questions about a supposed championship window. Thibodeau seemingly wasn’t too thrilled with that and apparently advised the players this was, as usual, a one game at a time season. Yes, lobbying for more bad quotes.

“You see Thibs is coaching hard,” said Gibson. “He’s yelling every play. He really wants us to get these wins; we understand it’s important. Guys have to express their feeling; it’s the NBA, it’s frustrating sometimes. Like Thibs said, we’ve got to just do it instead of talking; we’ve been talking too much. Now it’s time to just shut up and do it.”

Thursday against the Cavaliers would be a good time.