Sometimes you show up at the theater all excited for the night’s performance from some of the great stars, and then you hear the announcement about the understudies: Playing the role of Derrick Rose will be Aaron Brooks, playing the role of Jimmy Butler will be Tony Snell, playing the role of Joakim Noah will be Bobby Portis.
Talk about needing a miracle on Madison Street.
But the Bulls Monday got one and more in a 104-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
A new and improved script?
The Bulls witnessed their best bench performance of the season. Snell scored a season high 22 points, including a career best 16 in the fourth quarter, to hold off the Raptors and Kyle Lowry’s 28 points. Rookie Portis had 12 points and nine rebounds and a team best plus-16 when he was in the game, and Brooks skittered his way to 17 points and five assists.
“Obviously, it means a lot (to get that kind of effort from the reserves), especially when the starters don’t start the game off the way we are supposed to,” said Pau Gasol, who matched Snell with 22 points. “The bench came in and played with this energy, intensity, aggressiveness, sharpness; it makes a huge difference and obviously tonight it was the difference maker and allowed us to win the game. The depth of our team has to show in these types of situations when maybe a player or two are not having their best game or the energy required.”
Rose was sharp and elusive with 20 points and three of five on threes, though Rose played just one fourth quarter minute with the reserves playing so well. Coach Fred Hoiberg basically rode the reserves along with Taj Gibson most of the fourth quarter. But Butler had a season low five points in 36 minutes and Nikola Mirotic had two points. Gibson had four points, but 11 rebounds and his energy with Portis was contagious.
“The way we finished up the third quarter (8-0) and getting the lead (78-73 after three) and playing good solid basketball in the fourth (with a 13-5 start) was crucial,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I thought our energy picked up for sure when our reserves got in the game.”
With a dominant 51-27 bench margin, the Bulls moved to 17-12 while the Raptors in the wild and wacky Eastern Conference are 19-13.
With most teams now close to 40 percent through the regular season, the Cavaliers are starting to pull away a bit in the Eastern Conference. But the sixth place Bulls are one game behind second place Atlanta and one game ahead of 10th place Detroit.
The Bulls host the Pacers Wednesday and then are in Toronto Sunday as the schedule turns more difficult. Starting Sunday, the Bulls have 14 of the next 20 games on the road. It could mean the difference between solidifying a top four position in the conference to having to rally to make the playoffs.
“Energy and effort,” Rose answered about the team’s priorities. “If we bring those two things who knows (how far we can go). We’re having problems with teams under .500. I’d rather have that problem than to have a problem (with the better teams). Energy and effort would have changed some of those games against teams that were under .500. Teams over .500 we come out and compete, but we have to change it.”
Perhaps the Bulls are beginning to with their third consecutive good effort after the three consecutive losses that resulted in team meetings and a pep talk from executive John Paxson.
Though it perhaps didn’t hurt that the roster was a bit thinned with Joakim Noah still out with a shoulder problem. Hoiberg said he’d be reevaluated next week. And Doug McDermott sat out after warmups with what Houberg said was a sore knee. That not only opened up playing time for Snell, who hadn’t even played in two of the last three games, but additional playing time for the active Portis with a season high 27 minutes and 10:35 in the fourth quarter.
“Portis is not afraid of the moment, for sure,” said Hoiberg. “He has all kind of confidence; played big minutes against Oklahoma City on Christmas Day on ABC. Doing that shows what his makeup is all about; thrives and has all kinds of confidence.”
But what if Noah were available? And McDermott and Mike Dunleavy, the latter expected back perhaps in a month or so? Depth is important; playing time is better.
It’s still that supposed good issue to have: Too many good players.
But how exactly and when do you play them for the most benefit for the team?
“Since Niko has gone to the three, Tony has been pretty much benched,” noted Gasol. “He had a chance to play and I was really happy to see him contribute the way he did; played with the aggressiveness and assertiveness. Who know if he would have played if Doug would have played and who knows what would have happened; give credit to Tony for being ready.”
It was an eye opening head scratcher for the inconsistent and often disappointing Snell, who has the promise of success with athletic ability and a nice shooting touch. But he too often defers and plays passively. Not Monday, and surprisingly not down the stretch when Snell made big play after big play, a switch hands drive and finish for an 84-74 lead with 9:22 left, a three to make it 87-76, a runner for a 91-78 lead, a floater to make it 91-78—somebody stop me!—then another three for a 99-87 Bulls lead with 2:24 left and an 18 footer with 1:12 left after the Raptors came back with a pair of threes too much in vain. Snell closed the Bulls scoring with a pair of free throws as the Raptors never got closer than the final seven-point margin in the last 10 minutes trying to survive Tony-ball.
“I’m really proud of Tony for staying in there,” said Hoiberg. “He is one of those kids who is easy to coach. You talk to him before and after I took him out of the lineup and he handled it like a champ: ‘Whatever you think we have to do to win the game, coach, whatever you think you’ve got to do to do’. I told him to keep himself ready.”
We’ve seen this occasionally from Snell, like with 16 points and 11 rebounds against the 76ers a few weeks back and 11 points and three three pointers in the win over the Spurs last month. Hoiberg moved Gibson into the starting lineup to get a boost of energy and defensive protection for Gasol. But for scoring and court spacing, Hoiberg went back to Mirotic at small forward, where matchups can be difficult for him. He had 23 points at Dallas Saturday. But the Raptors put smaller players on Mirotic. His strength is not his athletic ability and he wasn’t quick enough for them at small forward.
And with McDermott a late scratch, Snell fell into the rotation along with Portis with Noah out. There has been a community chorus asking to see more of Portis, but at the expense of whom? Gibson understands and says this is the way it works on this Bulls team.
“My rook is making me better in practice,” said Gibson. “I’m guarding him every time. He’s a young guy, but he’s so eager. He challenges you every day. It’s like I’m going against one of the old time Boston Celtic players; so much aggression and trash talking. I love it, but he’s still a rookie. He’s going to make mistakes, still have to tell him to be aggressive, know the (defensive) coverage.
“Rookies always work their way in on this team, from Jimmy, myself, Joakim, everybody, earn their minutes,” said Gibson. “Bobby is earning his minutes, doing it the right way, coming to practice and busting his tail, putting the work in, never complaining and that’s the right way. There might be criticism for not coming in and playing early like other guys. But he is being molded the right way and you see tonight it’s going to make him an ever better player later in the season.”
The Bulls need Gasol’s scoring, and he had 22 points in 30 minutes including six of eight free throws. And Rose was effective again, impressive with an early face up block on Lowry that Rose turned into a fast break layup.
“That coast to coast layup, he was a jet on that play and great to see him knock down three of five from three,” said Hoiberg “He’s putting so much effort into that and I thought he was better defensively.”
It also was amusing to see almost the eye roll from Brooks when asked again if Rose was finally a competent player. Bulls players get that question in a variety of ways basically after every game.
“Derrick is fine,” Brooks said. “Phenomenal player. He’s starting to attack a little more. He’s coming along. He’s been through a lot. It’s good to see him attacking more and getting to the hole.”
It also was good to see Brooks darting his way to 11 second quarter points as the Bulls recovered from a 32-23 first quarter deficit to trail 52-49 at halftime.
“The reserves played great,” said Rose. “They looked more organized; they knew who was getting the ball, who was shooting. Everyone wasn’t stagnant when someone caught the ball.”
The Bulls finally caught up at 55-55 midway through the third quarter and led 78-73 after three with Gasol scoring 13 third quarter points and Rose adding 10 with a pair of threes. They scored 23 of the 29 third quarter points and turned it over to the reserves, who were impressive enough the starters barely played in the fourth quarter except for Gibson.
“Everybody played well, but Tony especially after sitting out,” said Brooks. “We‘ve got to do a better job of bringing our focus to every single game. Everybody knows that. We came ready to play. Tony stepped up; guys have to step up when their names are called. I just wanted to be aggressive, attack the hole, draw some contact when I get in there.
“Your goal every time you go in is to make sure the starters don’t have to come back in,” said Brooks “If you’ve done that you’ve done your job. The longer they can rest that’s better for us.”
“They deserved to be out there for as long as they wanted to because they were playing extremely well, playing hard,” added Gasol. “That’s what we need, continuous effort from every guy on our team and tonight Tony obviously played a heck of a game. Aaron also had a really great stretch in the second quarter, Bobby played really well. When those guys come in and give us that boost it’s huge.”
But when and for how long and then how much less for the other guys? It’s not always the greatest when you get so many toys for Christmas. Which one to play with? Would you have more fun with something else? Choices, choices, choices.