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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.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”