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Bulls do the howling in silencing the Timberwolves

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By Sam Smith | 2.28.2015 | 1:47 a.m. CT

The Bulls Friday got an encouraging message about Derrick Rose for a change, successful knee surgery that could have him back on the basketball court before the end of the regular season. Then Rose encouraged his backcourt teammate, Jimmy Butler, and it made all the difference in a 96-89 Bulls victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Butler said he spoke with Rose and Rose still was able to provide a big assist.

“He said, ‘Get out there and get it done, be aggressive and step up.’” Related Butler. “He told me lead this team. But he’s been telling me that all year. I think it’s a little more now that he’s not here.”

Butler got the message loud and clear, and it proved too much for a stubborn young Minnesota team.

Butler led the Bulls with 28 points on 11 of 19 shooting. He tied Joakim Noah for the lead in rebounds with 12. He had two blocks and two steals while switching between top Minnesota scorers Kevin Martin with 18 points and Andrew Wiggins.

And then with 1:17 remaining and the Bulls hanging on to a 91-86 lead after trailing by one with 5:09 left, Butler now playing point guard dribbled up, crossed over a Noah brush screen going to his left and banked in a runner over Nikola Pekovic for a 93-86 lead. Butler then in a rare show of courtside emotion took a big skipping step back on defense as the ’wolves called time.

“Jimmy played a little bit of the point, a little of the two, a little of the three, and a little of the four,” noted Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He did just about everything out there and he guards everyone. Jimmy has a very high basketball IQ. He knows the plays as well as anyone on our team at all the positions.”

The game, a struggle all night with Pau Gasol out ill, Rose obviously after surgery and Taj Gibson suffering a sprained ankle and leaving in the first quarter, was just about in the Bulls column after that with the aggressive defense the Bulls played down the stretch. But Noah with 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists back at his high post point center position with Gasol out drove for the effective clinching basket with 52.9 seconds left after a Martin jumper. Just for kicks, Butler blocked a Gary Neal jump shot attempt as the Bulls then ran down the clock.

“It is hard, but we have enough bodies and weapons on our bench to where guys can mix and match and play different positions and guard different positions,” said Butler of the latest sick bay lineup. “You miss your point guard and you want to get him back as soon as possible; four to six weeks, as long as it may sound I think we can handle that. It’s better than all year. Injuries happen, unfortunately. But it gives everyone else a chance to step in and see what they can do. Obviously we missed Pau today, we missed Taj and mostly Derrick. But if we play the way the way we know we can play we still can win games.”

It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be easy or visually appealing or with great regularity. Though the Bulls are hardly alone as the Cavs, Wizards and Raptors all lost Friday. So the Bulls remained third in the Eastern Conference, a half game behind Toronto at 37-22 and 18-12 at home.

It also didn’t look like Gibson, who started the game strong taking advantage of mismatches inside with a 48-16 Bulls edge in points in the paint, will be back soon. It appeared he landed on Noah’s foot after a rebounding scramble and sprained the same left foot that has troubled him for almost a year and just this week seemed to have improved. It’s a frustrating setback for Gibson as well as the Bulls.

Gasol was out ill after coming to morning practice and then having to return home. This amidst the encouraging news from general manager Gar Forman at a morning press conference that Rose’s surgery was relatively minor and he could be back working out this weekend and play later this regular season. That, obviously, was a medical positive for Rose. Though as Thibodeau always notes, the games keep coming and there’s no feeling sorry for yourself.

With Gasol and Rose out, the game reverted to the Bulls’ style of the last two seasons. Slower with four Bulls fast break points in straining for every basket, Noah playing a high post passing center with players making back cuts for scores, relatively poor outside shooting and a more locked in defense with Noah and Kirk Hinrich making vital defensive plays down the stretch.

“I don’t know what we were doing,” Thibodeau said with a laugh when asked about the return to the Noah point center game. “We knew we were going to be shorthanded. There are different plays that we go to in those situations. We just started working on those again. It’s not the plays, it is the players. I like the way the team responded; it was choppy, we were shorthanded. They were spirited. That’s key for us.”

It was, indeed, a more energized Bulls team, though they shot 38.5 percent and 29 percent on threes. But the three-point shooting was important as they got up 31 attempts and Mike Dunleavy was five of eight. This after zero for three Dunleavy shooting in the Wednesday loss to Charlotte following news of Rose’s latest surgery.

Aaron Brooks had a tough shooting game and two of 15 overall, though with a big three in the fourth quarter. And Tony Snell was two of eight on threes, but by passing up one late in the fourth quarter he got a great open look for Dunleavy for a three and 89-85 lead with 3:19 left when it looked like Minnesota might steal the game.

It was perhaps no coincidence with that three-point game in action, the Bulls big plays down the stretch were driving scores from Butler and Noah when defenders weren’t packed in to help.

“Just take what the defense gives you,” said Dunleavy, who had 21 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. “Go small (with three guards late) you spread the floor out a little more and get some open shots. I got some good looks early in the first half.

“Sometimes you are out there with the big guys and we are running plays to get them the ball, so there are not going to be as many shots available,” noted Dunleavy. “That’s fine with me. I’m here to win. When they need me to knock down shots and shoot a lot, I’ll do it. There’s others nights where there is not so much, so that’s cool, too.

“Obviously our team is structured around being big and pounding the ball inside and having two big guys,” noted Dunleavy. “But when guys go down you have to make due and play multiple positions. We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of talent. From that regard we’re able to withstand that blow to some degree. But when you start losing guys like Pau and Taj tonight you start getting real thin, and that can be tough. Guys really battled and stepped up and it was a big win.”

It also defines what has made this season so difficult for Thibodeau and why other than the injuries the team still remains in an adjustment period. There are these offensive additions like Gasol and Nikola Mirotic who provide options that can enhance the team. But then there’s also the embrace to use Noah where he is comfortable at center—all-NBA last season and Defensive Player of the Year.

“That’s what Jo wants to do, handle the ball,” said Butler. “He makes great decisions when he’s passing and he’s aggressive when he gets it. When you have a big man like that it’s hard to guard all five people on the floor.”

That also was the team’s best defensive closing group, as it was in a sense Friday with the likes of Noah, Hinrich and Butler. Dunleavy would be in with Gibson hurt. And Hinrich contributed mightily drawing a charge on Adreian Payne with 2:43 left and the Bulls ahead 89-85. And there also was Hinrich with a driving floater with 1:32 left and the Bulls leading by three, one of the three clutch offensive plays the Bulls made to close out the Timberwolves.

Even amidst the attention paid to the Rose story all season, there have been so many subplots. And among them has been the Gasol addition to give the Bulls another All-Star with Noah moving between positions and often to a more ancillary role. But Noah was the All-Star previously. There aren’t many good answers to this great Bulls mystery, like the great mysteries of the Earth: Can you cry under water, why does a round pizza come in a square box and how come we could get to the moon before figuring out to put wheels on luggage?

Perhaps it’s why in mock exasperation Thibodeau said he wasn’t quite sure what they were doing.

It was initially off to a better start as the Bulls went right to Gibson defended by rookie Payne and a 15-8 lead. But Gibson got hurt and the Bulls led 27-23 after one. The Timberwolves rested newly acquired Kevin Garnett with a back to back, but got a more aggressive rookie Wiggins, who now seems a lock for Rookie of the Year. The Timberwolves are just 13-44, but have some good young players and are healthy. Ricky Rubio had 15 points and 10 assists and showed an improved shot.

Meanwhile, Noah was at home throwing lob passes for dunks and clever bounce passes through the defense for scores.

“That’s innate,” said Thibodeau of Noah’s passing. “He has great vision and decision making ability. He has a very unorthodox game in many ways. He has great vision; when guys are open just a little bit on a cut he can get it there. It is a big plus when you have a big guy like that that can pass.”

Dunleavy got going in the second quarter with a trio of threes as the Bulls took a 51-44 halftime lead and 73-67 after three as Dunleavy and Snell delivered back to back threes late in the quarter. But Minnesota made a run midway through the fourth when the Bulls got a little shot happy with quick ones, the Timberwolves taking an 85-84 lead with 5:09 left.

But then it was Hinrich with two driving scores, Dunleavy’s three and then Noah and Butler finishing it off when the team needed big plays.

“The biggest thing with Jimmy is he’s getting better,” said Dunleavy. “We ran a lot of pick and roll with him at the end of the game. Being able to get in the paint and make plays for himself and make plays for other people. He’s really evolving from a guy that can get baskets to handle the ball and get baskets to now make plays for people. He’s evolving and it’s great to see, another weapon for us.”

And one the Bulls will need as another Rose return is about to begin.