Tony Snell’s 20 points, including 13 in the second quarter with three three pointers when the Bulls broke open the game and coasted the second half, carried the Bulls to an inefficient but welcomed victory.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Tony Snell leads Bulls over Milwaukee

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By Sam Smith | 2.24.2015 | 12:59 a.m. CT

It was no surprise one of the early wire service reports Monday after the Bulls 87-71 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks began, “Ian Snell scored 20 points, Nikola Mirotic had 16 points and a career high 14 rebounds, and the surging Chicago Bulls…”

I know, I know. Who is that guy?

It couldn’t be the Tony Snell we know, timidly wandering around the basketball court in his rare appearances until his only relief seems to be when he’s taken out of the game.

“I wasn’t relaxed at all,” Snell said about his first season plus with the Bulls, averaging 4.5 points in about 15 minutes per game last season and about two points per game this season in November and December. “I was more nervous, tried to rush things. As time goes on, getting more in game experience I’ve been able to relax.
Getting in game experience is different than practice.”

And now it may be difficult to keep him out of games as Snell’s 20 points, including 13 in the second quarter with three three pointers when the Bulls broke open the game and coasted the second half, carried the Bulls to an inefficient but welcomed victory.

“I think we had seven turnovers in the first quarter,” noted Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of another starters’ lethargic start, shooting about 30 percent until Snell scored five points in the last 1:44 for a 21-15 lead after one quarter. “But I liked a lot of things that we did at the beginning of the game. I thought our activity was very good; we were trying to get the ball up the floor quickly. Some of our decisions were the right decisions even though sometimes we mishandled the ball. We mistimed a couple of plays, but I thought they were the right plays. This is something we have to work on. I thought overall we played a very good game.”

Oh, that softie Thibs.

Thibodeau did add in something of a surprise for a guy whose dog house seemed to have a penthouse view for Snell, “Tony is playing well. You base it all on performance. As long as he is playing well, he is going to keep playing. He is playing very good basketball. So you do not have to worry about Tony being in the rotation.”

Which is not exactly bad news. But it will be intriguing to see how this works out with Thibodeau’s stretch run rotation generally inspired by the old TV program, Eight is Enough.

The Bulls starters playing together raised their record to 15-4 as the team overall is 36-21 and 17-11 at home and won for the sixth time in the last seven, though few have been artistic. This one came thanks more to the reserves, who just about equaled the starters’ production in more than 50 fewer minutes. Mirotic had those 14 rebounds with his 16 points and a pair of threes. And those two players were dominant in that first half 48-33 lead with Snell’s 18 points and Mirotic with 10 rebounds, the pair five of eight on threes in the half.

More importantly for this Bulls team is that Snell and Mirotic have emerged as reliable catch-and-shoot deep threats to spread the court. It’s an oddly contoured starting five, especially in this wide open NBA era with not much three-point shooting. Mike Dunleavy is the main threat, but the Bulls don’t usually run that many plays for him. The problem is he’s generally the lone true long distance threat with the starters. That lack of floor spacing has been an issue for the Bulls all season, depriving Derrick Rose of driving lanes and often resulting in a subway overcrowded interior.

Monday with both Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson ill, Thibodeau gave Snell and Mirotic each a regular run of more than 30 minutes, and both were productive and impressive.

Rose, shooting poorly since the All-Star break (eight of 34), was just one of 13, though he had a game high eight assists.

Thibodeau said Rose’s game was deceiving because of the shooting statistics.

“I actually liked the way he played tonight, even though he did not shoot well,” said Thibodeau. “I thought he was very aggressive defensively at the start of the game; he had us going up the court quickly and those are the things we want to see. When you are not shooting well you have to do other things to help the team win.”

While Rose saw the impact of having Snell and what it meant for the flow of the offense even though it was a tough game shooting for most of the starters.

“(Tony) opens up the floor,” said Rose. “The way he’s shooting, there is a lot of space out there. The way we’re moving the ball is big, too. Just him being on the court. You are not going to let him shoot an open jump shot. He keeps people honest. When he’s out there he does his job well.”

Snell this month is averaging 13.3 points in about 29 minutes per game and shooting 55 percent on three pointers.

So it presents what should be a welcome conundrum for the coach: How do you prepare for the stretch run and the playoffs with more of your players doing well?

“Learned to stay ready and keep working hard every day,” explained Snell. “Every moment on the court hard work pays off. When you have in game experience you have more confidence to see the floor. We practice hard every day. Get the chance to go in the game and do the best I can. Just being in the game; every game I’m trying to take advantage relaxing more. I’m comfortable; I play with these guys all the time in practice. Just in games I have not had the opportunity. It’s all about learning. It’s a learning experience and I’ll learn from it.”

That was about 10 questions.

No, you don’t get much elaboration speaking with Snell, who has this tendency I’ve never really seen before to stare seemingly straight through you when you ask a question. Media doesn’t speak with him much, mostly because he hasn’t played much. But he’s very pleasant, always cooperative. I’ve never seen him say no to anyone, cut short a questioner and not be courteous and respectful. But he’s not much for amplification.

He answers politely and directly in few words and has an unusual habit as questions are asked to turn directly toward the questioner and speak as if only he or she is there.

When he’s speaking, he often reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke about him being thrown out of college for cheating on his metaphysics exam. He looked into the soul of the kid sitting next to him. You feel Snell is looking deep within you.

The game also suggested another Allen line of life being divided into the horrible and the miserable.

The Bulls were often horrible, though the Bucks were truly miserable.

The Bulls shot 35.5 percent and committed seven first quarter turnovers. Rose was one of 13, Butler scored 11 points, Dunleavy four and the starters were two of 11 on threes.

Pau Gasol did have 15 points and 10 rebounds for his league leading 37th double/double. But after a career high 46 points against the Bucks the last time the teams played, the Bucks double teamed him pretty much on every catch and Gasol had just nine shots. Joakim Noah continued to be impressive on the boards with 16 as he added eight points and overall the Bulls had a 62-41 rebounding edge, though the Bucks played most of the game with guards and small forwards.

And even that could not help their scoring much as they fell to 31-25. Maybe Brandon Knight should have been an All-Star. The way the Eastern Conference is shaping up, the Bucks seem comfortably set in sixth. So you’d like to open the playoffs third to get a shot at them given they seem to be trying to develop for next season with the Michael Carter-Williams trade.

It was a mistake filled first quarter with a dozen turnovers between the teams, both teams well under 40 percent shooting and tied at 12 with less than two minutes remaining. Not a bad game to arrive late.

Rose did have all his points in the first quarter, mostly driving to the basket with five of six free throws. Snell’s late five points gave the Bulls a 21-15 lead after one quarter. Then it was that shooting group with Snell, Mirotic and Brooks, and Noah lively retrieving missed shots—and there were plenty to find—blowing out the Bucks with a 16-4 start to the second quarter and 37-19 lead. A Snell three culminated that run, the Bulls made it 39-21 on a Snell slam dunk on a Rose outlet pass and then 42-24 on a Snell three off another Rose pass. The Bulls would close the half leading 48-33.

“Good work on the glass," said Gasol. "They played small most of the time. So that facilitates on the rebounding end. Good activity, good effort on our part. We’re getting more active. They were committed to double teaming and taking the ball out of my hands. So guys got good looks from the weak side and made big plays. As long as we work together and play well and win that’s what we are here for.”

The Bulls mostly behind Gasol going inside against the smaller Bucks to open the second half went ahead 63-41. The Bucks made a bit of a murmur to close the third quarter 64-49 as the Bulls failed to score a field goal in their last 5:50, again standing around a bit too much trying to force the ball for postups. But the Bulls got a Butler three to open the fourth quarter and then a Butler follow up slam dunk on a Brooks miss to reawaken the crowd, if not the Bucks, and see basically no threat the rest of the game.

“Got to get back in a rhythm,” shrugged Rose, whose play game to game remains scrutinized for every shot. “That was the most days off I took off in five years; shot worse before (actually tied for his NBA poorest shooting game). It’s nothing big.

“The bigs did a great job of making sure they got to bodies,” said Rose about the key rebounding margin. “Rather than just watching the ball, they got the bodies, got the rebounds. And if they didn’t get the rebounds, they tipped it and the guards were at the elbow to get the rebound. We need everybody. Everybody needs to get better individually. Everybody needs to consistently work on their game and put everything into this team. This is the time for us to make this push.”

It’s five more home games before a stretch of five of six on the road into mid-March. Like Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Perhaps, though maybe the more interesting question for the Bulls going forward is just who will be showing up and when and for how long.