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."