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.
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.”
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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.