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Snell plays unlikely hero as Bulls pull away from impressive Raptors

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Snell plays unlikely hero as Bulls pull away from impressive Raptors

The Toronto Raptors came into Monday’s game against the Bulls ready to run and eager to stamp themselves as the best team in the East not named the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But the Bulls, playing their third game in four nights, were ready for a fight and used every trick in the toolbox despite being shorthanded to deliver a win on the scorecard, a 104-97 decision at the United Center.

For the first time this season, it wasn’t Derrick Rose or Jimmy Butler or Pau Gasol who led them to a win against a plus-.500 team. Actually Rose and Gasol sat for nearly the entire fourth quarter after scoring 23 of the 29 Bulls points in the third. Gasol (22 points, seven rebounds) re-entered with 1:25 left and the Bulls lead in double figures, and Rose came shortly thereafter.

“It’s not an easy decision,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Pau had a really good game, and Derrick played well also. It’s the balancing act.”

[MORE BULLS: Bulls' bench ready 'any given day,' makes good in win over Raptors]

But never fear, Tony Snell was there to close things out as we all expected. Hitting big triples, being in the right place to space the floor on other plays and actually finishing at the rim, he scored 16 in the final 12 minutes and finished with 22.

Playing because Doug McDermott was a late scratch with right knee soreness, Snell helped extended a five-point lead after three quarters into a 14-point lead with the stars on the bench, as the Bulls offense became more efficient as the night went on, finishing shooting 46 percent and 38 percent from 3-point range.

“You talk to him before and after I took him out of the lineup, and he took it like a champ,” Hoiberg said. “I told him to keep himself ready. He had some good workouts, and then he went out and responded.”

Rose put up 20 with four assists, doing most of his damage in the third and even hit three triples as his backcourt mate Butler struggled with his legs and his shot. Rose seemed to find his in the last few games, scoring 20 for the second time in a row and doing it on just 16 shots.

“I’m playing the same way, just taking the shots they’re giving me,” Rose said. “It’s something I work on every day.”

[MORE BULLS: Bulls rookie Bobby Portis shining after opportunity]

Butler scored just five but didn’t force his offense, taking just seven shots and adding five rebounds with four assists.

He didn’t have to, as Rose, Snell, Gasol, Bobby Portis and Aaron Brooks had efficient games going and there was no need to disrupt the flow.

Portis again stated his case for more playing time, and it’ll be damn near impossible to remove him when the roster returns to full health. Scoring 12 with nine rebounds is only part of it, as he and Taj Gibson (11 rebounds) helped the Bulls to a 49-46 rebounding edge.

But playing against some tough and crafty guys in the Raptors frontcourt, along with fighting through a bad call in the fourth when the Raptors were making a run, could go a long way into accelerating his maturation process.

“Effort and energy,” Rose said. “It’s those two things. If we bring them to games, who knows.”

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Speaking of acceleration, there was Rose going against perhaps the Eastern Conference’s best point guard in Kyle Lowry, who scored 28 with nine assists and six rebounds. But on one of the game’s first plays, Lowry tried a turnaround jumper on Rose that was stuffed back in his face before recovering and going full-speed to the rim for a left-handed layup.

He played fast, but the Raptors played faster, thus opening up things for Luis Scola, who feasted to make all six of his shots in the first quarter as the Raptors took a nine-point lead and looked like they could blow the Bulls out of the building.

But Brooks and Portis re-energized the group in the second, scoring the first 19 points of the period and bringing things even at 42 right before halftime. Brooks scored 17 with five assists in 27 minutes.

It was the type of balance and poise that’s re-emerged for the Bulls in the last week or so, and perhaps they’ve weathered a self-made storm that will help them down the line.

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

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AP

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.