Tony Snell ignites Bulls second-half run against woeful 76ers


Tony Snell ignites Bulls second-half run against woeful 76ers

One had to wonder how long it was gonna take for the Bulls to realize they were playing the Philadelphia 76ers, as they seemed to dance with danger for over a half.

And there was no guarantee they would wake up, but Tony Snell’s best game of the season propelled the Bulls to a dominating second half and easy win, 115-96 at the United Center.

Snell, whose struggles have been well-documented as the opportunity presented in Mike Dunleavy’s injury-induced absence, turned up the activity as the Bulls were in danger of being the second team to donate a win to the woeful 76ers.

Trailing by five at the half, Snell actually outscored the 76ers alone, 13-12 but it was more than his scoring that sparked the Bulls to distance themselves. He got in the passing lane for steals, grabbed rebounds and generally made himself known in ways he hadn’t thus far this season.

[MORE: Chicago native Jahlil Okafor impressive on the floor, adjusting off it]

In the third, though, his steals and tough drives to the basket were on full display, ensuring the Bulls wouldn’t play four on five offensively, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds for his second career double-double.

“I thought he impacted the game in every way possible. He did everything tonight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “When he’s out there he can defend. When you get that type of offensive output from Tony, it makes us a very good basketball team.”

It was necessary with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler battling illness, as Rose nearly didn’t play the second half but wanted to be at least a threat with his team struggling.

Snell only averages 5.4 points so his scoring came as an anomaly and explosion, and with the new configuration of a starting lineup with Taj Gibson in at power forward, he's gonna need to make and take open shots with regularity.

Pau Gasol scored 13 with seven assists and six rebounds, as the Bulls had 28 assists and shot 51 percent from the field overall. Gasol and Joakim Noah (five points, 15 rebounds, eight assists) had some strong words for the Bulls at halftime, which Snell obviously took to heart.

“We need Tony to play like that all the time, that confidence, that swag, knowing he’s one of the best players in the league. If you think like that it can happen,” Butler said. “Your confidence comes from your work. You see the ball go through the basket, it’s like the defense isn’t even there.”

Snell seemed to ignite the entire team as Rose awoke from his game-long slumber to score six in the quarter, Taj Gibson grabbed an offensive rebound after a miss and slammed it home to an approving roar from the Bulls crowd.

“My whole mentality in the second half was to get some good defense going and try to lead to offense,” Snell said. “I think it was my best individual game but a good team effort.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The Bulls went on a surprising 26-1 run from the 4:03 mark of the third, where the lead was only three, to the 8:15 mark of the fourth when the game was put out of reach at 97-69.

Nikola Mirotic hit several triples during the run and Doug McDermott continued to play with the freedom that’s earned the trust of the coaching staff as Mirotic finished with 17 and McDermott 13.

Things got so good, Fred Hoiberg felt at ease enough for Bobby Portis to make his regular-season debut at the United Center, and the rookie hit a baseline hook shot at 2:36 for his first points at home.

And Portis made his case for more burn, with seven points in four minutes.

But boy, were things uneasy for 24 minutes. Chicago native Jahlil Okafor was working out on Pau Gasol and Noah with silky moves and baseline dunks, scoring 20 in the first half and giving the 76ers reason to believe they could compete for 48 minutes.

Only Butler seemed to be ready to play for the Bulls, keeping them afloat with 19 of his game-high 23 to match Okafor bucket-for-bucket. The 76ers shot 48 percent in the first half, including 37 points in a disastrous second quarter where they shot 64 percent from the field and hit four triples.

“At half we were just talking about how we can score the ball and we forget how well we gotta defend to win, especially at home,” Butler said. “We’re all men in this locker room, we know what we gotta do.”

But they shut down the visitors in the second half, allowing only a step-back basket from Okafor and 76ers shot just 34 percent, ensuring they wouldn’t be giving a little extra Christmastime cheer to a desperate team.

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.”