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.”
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.”
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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.