The Bulls Monday won perhaps their most important game of the season, 115-96 over the Philadelphia 76ers.
The now 1-25 Philadelphia 76ers?
“Everybody is an NBA team,” insisted Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 23 points. “It’s a decent team; they are young with a lot of a talent. I bet if they beat us you wouldn’t be asking me that question (about losing to a team with that record).”
Well, yes, and even more pointedly.
You can lose to teams like the Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers, whom the Bulls actually have defeated. You can have slipups against teams like the Hornets, Pistons and Celtics, which the Bulls did. But you can’t lose to the 76ers’ D-league/rookie amalgamation. Lest, as my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Coughlin used to say when she never got any of my jokes, “There’s something radically wrong.”
That sort of loss would produce even more soul searching for a team already unsteadily making its way through the season.
“Obviously (we) have an issue now playing with the right energy,” observed Joakim Noah, who had an energetic 15 rebounds and eight assists off the bench in 22 minutes. “It’s definitely something we need to (do). This team has an identity of playing with intensity and the right energy; that’s been our identity for a while. It’s for us to find that and play hard the whole game.”
The Bulls, now 14-8 with their third straight victory, found enough of that energy and skill after trailing 56-51 at halftime to escape the mortification of losing to what looks like it will be the worst team in the history of American team sports.
They did so thanks to the all around brilliant play of Tony Snell, who had a season high 16 points, 13 in the decisive third quarter, a career high 11 rebounds, two steals and what looked like three more the scorers’ missed and basically inspiring the Bulls to their best quarter of the season, a 34-12 third quarter that relentlessly pushed the Bulls to their biggest lead of the season during the fourth quarter.
Yes, Tony Snell.
We don’t hear those adjectives much about Snell’s play, like inspiring, brilliant, relentless. We hear that about as often as compliments for Donald Trump’s hair style.
But this was the night for Mr. Tony.
“I think Tony impacted the game every way you possibly can on the basketball floor,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He rebounded, he defended, he was getting to the rim, he was knocking down shots, he got himself to the free throw line. When he’s out there, he’s obviously a guy who can defend for us. He did a great job on J.J. Redick a couple of games ago and he defended Eric Gordon very well in the last game and he had the job tonight of guarding (Isaiah) Canaan, who can really heat it up. When you get that offensive output from Tony and the rebounding makes us a very good basketball team. He did everything for us.”
Yes, Tony Snell.
It’s been a tough season for Snell, hanging onto the starting small forward job with Mike Dunleavy hurt despite scoring zero points in three of his last five games and scoring six points or fewer in 10 others including another pair of zeros. No player in the NBA this season playing as many minutes has as many scoreless or ineffective offensive games. Yet, Snell’s presence is vital, and Hoiberg has stuck with him because Snell’s production is important to the team’s success.
It’s perhaps asking too much of a young player like Snell, but his shooting ability (he’s among the league’s top 10 in three-point shooting) combined with his long arms and physical athleticism makes Snell potentially crucial for a starting unit that again came out slowly as it was 6-6 midway through the first quarter.
With Derrick Rose, Butler, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol starting, the first unit lacks a true three-point shooter. But Hoiberg was right to move Gibson in over Nikola Mirotic, who is playing more relaxed with less pressure with the second unit. Mirotic had 17 points and made five of eight threes in his best shooting game of the season. Plus, Hoiberg needed a better defensive and high energy player next to Gasol. There’s likely been consideration to replace Snell with Doug McDermott among the starters, though Hoiberg prefers the instant energy role for McDermott. And McDermott has prospered there, adding 13 points and eight rebounds against the 76ers.
So if Snell were that threat to stretch the floor with his consistent defense and aggression on the boards, which was the best in his career Monday, the Bulls would have a much more dynamic starting unit. One that basically took the game over after halftime. It was Snell disrupting the 76ers’ offense with three steals or deflections in four possessions after the Bulls took a 62-60 lead with 7:34 left in the third quarter.
Snell then drove and dunked, finishing aggressively, then again for a three-point play instead of veering off and avoiding contact as he often does. Snell led the Bulls’ rebounding domination in the quarter after the 76ers had eight first half offensive rebounds. And then Snell had yet another three-point play on a full force drive during the Bulls’ closing 14-0 run to close the third quarter that extended to 26-1 into the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, I figure this was my best individual game, but it was also a good team effort,” said Snell. “Defense, pushed on offense and got us the win.”
Snell is as curious an interview as you’ll find in the NBA. He’s routinely available and cooperative. I have never seen him reject a reporter or question. He answers in short, declarative sentences. Hemmingway made a nice living doing that, though with a bit more activity. Snell’s sentences have a promising start, but quickly are like they’re screeching to a halt because a deer was crossing the road.
“Learn from my mistakes, try to work hard every day,” Snell said. “Trying to correct offensive mistakes, make sure defense is consistent and work on the offense. I’m very confident I can score and defend as well. So just do both at the same time.
“This is a big compliment,” he said. “I’m still starting because defensively I am doing really well. Just execute better offensively. They say on defense I’m doing fine and do more every game. I just try to play the best I can.”
But if he could play like that all the time, or most of the time, or a lot of the time....
You’re lookin’ in Tony’s eyes and suddenly realize, could this be the start or something big?
“Tony was huge,” agreed Butler. “We need Tony to play like that all the time, that confidence, that swag, knowing he’s one of the best players in this league. If you think like that then you can make that happen.”
The Bulls will take this one and keep moving on as this box of chocolates season continues with no one quite knowing what they’ll get game to game.
This was two different games with the Bulls behind Butler’s 12 points after two poor shooting games recovering for a 24-19 lead after one quarter. It was a particularly lethargic Derrick Rose, who attempted one first half shot in 18 scoreless minutes. Rose finished two of three for six points, his fewest shots playing more than 20 minutes in his career. But Hoiberg revealed after the game that Rose was ill and was apparently asked not to play in the second half. But Rose did and had a pair of key driving scores to start that 14-0 run.
“Derrick almost did not play in the second half; he really was under the weather,” said Hoiberg. “He had very low energy, wasn’t able to eat much today. He fought through it, gutted through it. We asked him at halftime if he wanted to get rest, but he said he wanted to continue to play for his guys.”
It was a disappointing first half for the Bulls, the 76ers early in the second quarter against the reserve group off to an 11-0 run, and then 14-7 to close the half. Chicagoan Jahlil Okafor had eight of his 22 points in the second quarter with some nifty spin moves to the basket.
“In that second quarter, we did not have any pressure on them,” said Hoiberg. “They went anywhere they wanted to on the floor and they were very comfortable. We were not helping, weren’t helping the helper. It was a very poor defensive quarter for us.”
Anyone got the orange slices?
No, it wasn’t a happy halftime with juice boxes.
“It was very vocal,” admitted McDermott. “Jo was pretty heated and Pau talked up, saying we have to step on teams’ throats like this. Other teams see films like this of us lollygagging the first half and they’re not scared of us; we wanted to really change that around the second half and I thought we did a better job.”
You lollygag on defense, you lollygag into the front court, you lollygag on box outs.
Do you know what that makes them? Larry.
Chicago doesn’t want lollygaggers.
And so the Bulls weren’t thereafter in a symphony of sound, the net swishing, the bodies thumping, the fans exploding in rhapsody.
So much so that rookie favorite Bobby Portis was able to make a rare appearance, scoring seven points in the last 4:25 in his first game in the United Center.
“It’s been tough,” said Portis, who connected on three jump shots. “Something new for me for sure. Last time I didn’t play was 10th grade. I’m just waiting my time. Even though my time hasn’t come, I’ve been supportive of my teammates. Just trying to be the best teammate possible. Every player does something different with me, some advice: Stay ready, it’s a long season, 82 games, and I need to stay ready for my turn.”
“It was crazy,” Portis said of the ovation from home fans. “It’s something I had not gotten before. I really cherish that moment. It’s something every kid dreams of, getting into an NBA game and having everyone cheering for you. I’m blessed to be in this position and being on the Bulls.”
Added Hoiberg: “I thought Bobby Portis played great. He is a kid who is very confident. You can see it in his eyes when he went in there and our guys wanted to get him the ball. They know how hard he works. The same thing with Cameron Bairstow. When they got in the game they produced. I was very happy for Bobby. We are trying to get opportunities to get him out there and get his feet wet and get comfortable. I have said it all along: He will play meaningful minutes. It is a long season ahead.”
And a much better one if the Bulls see more of what they did from perhaps Portis, but certainly Snell.
“The movement, shot over 50 percent, 28 assists; played unselfish basketball,” Hoiberg said about the win. “I hope we are starting to get there. The fourth quarter the other night against New Orleans was good. Once we get cutting and playing out there it’s tough to guard. I think we are getting there; I hope.”