Bulls' bench ready 'any given day,' makes good in win over Raptors


Bulls' bench ready 'any given day,' makes good in win over Raptors

Three weeks ago in Boston, Tony Snell began a seven-game shooting slump in which he shot 30 percent and lost not only his spot in the starting lineup but also the rotation. Aaron Brooks logged a DNP-CD — his third consecutive healthy scratch — as did Bobby Portis, whose NBA resume to that point consisted of 22 minutes as the Bulls fell to the Celtics, their third consecutive loss.

Still, on Monday night, when those three reserves combined for 51 points on 54 percent shooting in a come-from-behind victory over the Raptors, it was less a surprise and more another chapter added to what's been as unpredictable a team as there is in the league. For that trio, which accounted for nearly half the Bulls' 104 points, playing time had been sparse because of depth. And when that depth wilted, they were ready and willing to pave another path to success.

"We have a bunch of looks on this team," Brooks said after the game, "and you never know on any given day."

It was Brooks and Portis closing the gap on a nine-point Raptors lead by scoring the Bulls' first 19 points in the second quarter. Brooks' 27 minutes were a season-high, with his quick drives to the lane resulting in a pair of three-point plays and an assist to Portis to begin the period.

Portis, seeing extended minutes with Joakim Noah (shoulder) on the shelf, then scored in the paint on consecutive possessions, followed by five points from Brooks that gave the Bulls the lead. Portis' 20-footer capped a 19-8 run that brought the Bulls back from what looked early on like another lethargic performance, this time against a tough Raptors team sporting a 10-7 road record, second best in the East.

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Brooks, who tied season-highs with 17 points and five assists, kept finding the paint in the second half. And where his aggressiveness resulted in points in the first half, it opened up the outside for arguably Tony Snell's best performance in a Bulls uniform.

Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose combined for 23 points in the third quarter to give the Bulls a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, and Brooks' objective for the second unit was direct.

"That’s your goal every time you go in for the end of the third quarter and the fourth is to make sure the starters don’t have to come back in," Brooks said. "The longer they can rest, the better it is for us."

Snell heeded those words. The swingman had played nine minutes in the Bulls' previous three games, twice a healthy scratch, scoring 15 points in his last four appearances. He topped that point total in a single quarter, pouring 16 of his season-high 22 points in the final stanza. The additional minutes came as a result of Doug McDermott's scratch minutes before tip with a sore right knee.

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Snell scored on a pair of drives, two mid-range shots and connected on two of his season-high four 3-pointers as the Bulls pushed their fourth quarter lead to as many as 13 points. The starters got their rest, and Snell capped off his performance with two free throws to seal the victory. The new role Snell played for a night was a stark contrast from his starting spot he held in 21 of the Bulls' first 25 games. But he stayed ready. And when his name was called, he flourished.

"After I took him out of the lineup, he took it like a champ," Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "'Whatever you think we have to do, coach, to win the game.' I told him to keep himself ready."

The Bulls' bench has been a sore spot to date. They rank 23rd in points per game and field goal percentage, and Noah's injury at a time when he was playing his best basketball was difficult, Portis' blossoming (12 points, nine rebounds) notwithstanding.

But for a night the bench was instrumental in the victory. The 51 bench points — Kirk Hinrich didn't shoot in nine minutes — weren't a season-high, but given Jimmy Butler's season-low scoring output (five points, 2-7 FG), just one starter logging a positive rating (Taj Gibson, +5) and Derrick Rose missing nine of his last 12 shots, the bench points were a season-best.

Inconsistencies continue to plague the Bulls, and they're still looking to heed Hoiberg's plea to play 48 good minutes. Still, the bench without its leading scorer took a step forward on a night in which the Bulls needed it in order to earn an important conference victory against an East contender.

"They played great basketball, man," Rose said of the bench. "That was, I think, the difference in the game, the way that they came out and played. It seemed like they knew where the ball was going, who was going to have the ball, and it looked more organized."

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”