The Bulls starting backcourt of Derrick Rose and Tony Snell combined for 52 points vs. Cleveland Thursday night
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Rose and Snell guide Bulls past Cavs

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By Sam Smith | 2.13.2015 | 1:38 a.m. CT

Derrick Rose sliced and diced, he slashed and dashed. The warmth from the community covered him like a familiar blanket in the verbal salutes. The Bulls Thursday on national TNT dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-98, and if it wasn’t exactly like old times, it sure seemed a lot like it and felt awfully good for the Bulls.

“When I’m out there I’m really trying to attack, really trying to push myself,” said Rose, who was brilliant with 30 points and seven assists in the almost wire to wire Bulls win. “We can be very good; I think everyone knows that. It just takes everyone being on the same page, and defense is the key.

“In my mind I still have that mentality (to be MVP),” Rose said when asked about the familiar fan appreciation raining down on him after a third quarter multiple spin cross over full court dash that was among his 13 third quarter points to give the Bulls a 15-point lead. “I appreciate it, but it’s just I can’t get caught up in it. I just need to be on the floor. Me playing, being in certain situations where it is a close game; all of those scenarios are perfect because I haven’t played in two years. Any scenario where I am trying to figure out the game, I think, is going to help me grow me into a better basketball player or the basketball player I used to be.

“Yes, very pleased (with how I am coming along),” added Rose. “The shooting is going to come, start knocking down a consistent three pointer; that’s going to come. It comes with conditioning. My layups are coming, my playmaking is coming. It’s all coming. So many things I can go to when I am in the lane. I just have to put it all together. Very happy where I’m at, the way I am playing. But, like I said, I can always improve on my game. I’m just happy we won and happy for Tony.”

That would be Tony Snell, the revelation.

The oft forgotten, generally ignored second year swingman is on the run of his career after being benched for no apparent reason against the Rockets on the recent road trip. Snell scored 22 points Thursday and with Jimmy Butler out with a shoulder injury did a terrific defensive job against LeBron James.

James did have 31 points, but he committed eight turnovers, six when guarded by Snell, according to ESPN stats, and had a whopping -27 in plus/minus, one of the worst of his career.

Snell now has back to back games of 24 points and 22 points, shooting 15 of 25 on threes the last four games. He’s averaged 18.2 points in that stretch, and it’s really no coincidence the Bulls have won all four after losing 10 of 15. It’s also no coincidence Mike Dunleavy has been back the last two, and since halftime of the Tuesday game the Bulls have looked the best they have all season.

That’s because with Snell and Dunleavy able to stretch the floor as three point shooters, suddenly the lane opens up for Rose.

And Rose has taken advantage with his best play of the season, shooting 22 for 41 the last two games, averaging seven assists with two turnovers, both late in Thursday’s game after the Bulls had a big lead and were merely closing out.

“Derrick has found a really good rhythm,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He has a great pace going right now and great decision making. There’s a balance between the attacks on the rim, attacks in the paint, mid range game and the three, the playmaking. It has really gotten us into a good rhythm offensively, and defensively he’s starting to really come. I said this before: It is very difficult to come back after one year off; and you’re looking at two and a half years. That really is a long time. The timing is coming. I think his confidence is coming and the timing is coming back. He is getting back to what his strengths are. That’s terrific for us.”

But it’s more than just being on the court with Rose playing the last 16 straight and 27 of the last 28. He’s also had three games of at least 30 points in the last 15 and another eight of at least 20 points. He’s not going to the All-Star game, but nobody on the Bulls has played better the last month.

And that includes Pau Gasol, who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for his 14th straight double/double and league leading 34th.

But it misses the point if it suggests it’s just Rose getting his wind and getting in shape.

The Bulls floor game was a mess to watch much of the season with Dunleavy going out for a month, Kirk Hinrich shooting poorly and while Jimmy Butler was scoring, much was going to the free throw line or mid range shooting. Similarly with Gasol. Defenses thus stacked the paint against Rose. It’s why he shot so many threes. He was trying to get the defenses to come out and open the court since no one else was. It’s why he was committing turnovers as he tried to force his way into a lane with three or four defenders stacked up on every possession.

Now comes Snell making threes and Dunleavy, though he only made one Thursday, similarly a threat. Now when Rose drives and the defense reacts with a double team—which it does every time—Gasol is wide open for jump shots. He’s been draining them mostly on Rose passes the last few games since defenses have had to stay with the weak side shooters. And then Gasol is very good passing to the weak side to shooters, where he found Snell several times, thus giving the Bulls ball movement that’s been rare until the last week.

It was no coincidence the Bulls Thursday had 29 assists on 42 field goals. They also outrebounded the Cavs 47-43 after being clobbered on the boards by the Cavs the last two meetings as Joakim Noah Thursday had 10 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists in another sprightly game for him.

With the court spread better, Noah’s also had more openings to the boards with the multiple efforts Thibodeau talks about so often.

“I still feel like I’ve got another gear," said Noah. "It's just been up and down, so I have to stay patient. But I'm excited. I'm feeling better and better, and I’ve just got to keep working."

Similarly, Taj Gibson added 13 points and six rebounds, including two offensive on the same possession between Cavs defenders that brought an ovation of appreciation from the home fans.

“The playmaking has been terrific,” said Thibodeau. “Guys are getting good shots and making quick decisions. Tony has been playing very well and is shooting the ball well. He had a really tough matchup. I also thought this was his best game in terms on physicality. When the bigs went to help, he did a good job of sinking in the lane, putting his body on people. It gave us a physical presence. You need to do that, particularly against this team.”

Despite the fast start of the Atlanta Hawks, this Cavs team having won 14 of 15 coming in is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They were missing Kevin Love with an eye injury, but the Bulls were the dominant team all around.

They went to 34-20 with the Cavs falling to 33-22. The Bulls are 15-11 at home and don’t play for a week with a new league-wide long All-Star break.

So it was a fitting farewell of sorts after the Bulls had lost the first two games between the teams with one more after this in April. Tie breakers can matter for the division title and seeding. Also making a statement to your top rival and the best player in the league.

The Bulls plan seemed to work to perfection thanks not only to Snell’s aggressive defense on James—the vast majority of James’ shots when guarded by Snell came from outside 15 feet—but Snell’s shooting.

James likes to play the passing lanes to get steals and get out on the break for easy scores that tend to demoralize opponents. But with Snell shooting well, James could not sag off him for steals to help on defense. It seemed to affect James’ overall play as his ball handling was poor and he constantly dribbled into traps. Eventually, the Cavs tried James on Noah. But Noah the beat him on the offensive boards a few times and the Cavs don’t like to wear out James trying to fight big guys.

Plus, Rose made it difficult all game for Kyrie Irving, who was regularly forcing shots and was six of 18 for 17 points.

“I just compete,” said Rose. “I never go to the matchups where I have to do better than this person. It’s fun competing, but I still want that feeling where I am more comfortable and patient. It’s coming. It’s only a matter of time.”

And it seems his time might be here for Snell, much ignored the last year and a half, like Jimmy Butler was by Thibodeau his first year and a half until Luol Deng was injured. Butler emerged and it looks like Snell is doing so now as well.

Snell is quiet, speaks mostly in short, direct sentences with little elaboration. He makes a point of staring you directly in the eye when he answers a question, but it’s generally with a serious expression. He relaxed a bit post game to say he hoped to avoid sitting out more games.

“Just having the in game experience has helped with my confidence and my teammates have helped me out as well,” said Snell. “I wasn’t the only one guarding (James). It was the whole team. Just try to pressure him as much as I can and make sure he doesn’t get in the paint because he’s really dangerous getting in the paint and drawing fouls. So I was just trying to make sure he took a lot of shots.

“Every day I worked to take advantage of the opportunity and it’s paying off,” Snell said. “Seeing the results of the work I’m putting in is showing. So I’m very happy it’s showing. Just trying to step up. Jimmy went down, Kirk went down. Just trying to step up and help my team win.”

Snell did with his own aggressive start with a pair of first quarter dunks on cuts as the ball and players moved better than almost all season. Gasol had a dozen in the first as Rose drove and scored and also found him and Rose added nine points for a 30-26 Bulls lead. Thibodeau kept Aaron Brooks in a long stretch with Rose in the second quarter to keep shooters on the floor as the Bulls went ahead 48-34 with Rose pushing and driving and finishing. When the Cavs tried Shawn Marion on Gibson, Gibson went inside and scored easily.

The Cavs were hanging around 55-48 at halftime when Rose scored on a reverse hanging layup and that drive for free throws that set off the MVP chants. Snell added a three and Rose closed the quarter taking the ball full court for a layup after the Cavs had scored with five seconds left. That gave the Bulls an 87-77 lead after three quarters.

Meanwhile, Snell was so efficient on James that Thibodeau took to taking Snell out only when James went out and then putting him back in for James.

“The Snelly Cat was all over the place,” crowed Noah, who invents most of the team nick names. “Snelly Cat was huge, being very disruptive.

“I thought he was going to be the X-factor from the beginning of the year, to be honest with you,” said Noah, another of those who had been lobbying for the lanky 6-7 Snell to play more. “Somebody who really put in the most work of anybody this summer. He was in the gym the most. And I think for somebody who’s gone through what he’s gone through, one game playing a lot next game DNP, I think he’s dealt with it really well in terms of the way he works.”

And then it was Snell with a nice assist from Nikola Mirotic, the latter with five fourth quarter points keeping the Cavs from making any run. And then Rose with a nice pull up bank shot before leaving with about a minute left.

“The last time we played them they kind of rocked us,” noted Rose of the Cavs. “I felt like we didn’t compete. For us to come out at home and compete the way we did, it’s a sign of a little relief, also. “We can go on the break and really enjoy the break. And when we get back really be focused.”

Perhaps finally make that run.