Taj Gibson said he and Jimmy Butler have been talking about it for weeks, the first return for each to play the Bulls and in Chicago, where they were born and raised as NBA players, where they left but never will forget.
"Weeks prior we've been talking about what happens if we're in Chicago and the game comes down to the last shot," Gibson was saying late Friday night outside the Minnesota locker room. "He was like, ‘Man, that would be pretty cool.' He had the ball in his hand late, swung it ... things happen."
What happened was Zach LaVine, the feature player in the big Butler trade last June who finally outshot Butler down the stretch in a memorable closing clash that concluded with the Bulls overcoming a five-point deficit in the last 70 seconds for a 114-113 victory.
The win broke a seven-game Bulls losing streak, which was more footnote than feature in the battle in which LaVine made every big play down the stretch in scoring the last 11 Bulls points and a season best 35 overall to defeat the high flying Timberwolves, who now are 34-24. The Bulls are 19-35.
The Bulls had six players score in double figures as Robin Lopez had 19 and Jerian Grant had perhaps his best game of the season with 14 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds without a turnover with Kris Dunn still out. Lauri Markkanen returning from personal leave had 12 points along with Justin Holiday, though teammates apparently didn't recognize Markkanen as he got just seven shots, making five. Bobby Portis had 11 points off the bench while closing the game to defend Gibson.
Butler was terrific with a game high 38 points and 13 in the fourth quarter. "Typical Jimmy game, bullying, getting to the rim, hitting shots; he was terrific," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
But it was LaVine making the game winning plays, and basically against Butler, first with a driving dunk with 1:11 left after Butler lost him on a switch and the Timberwolves defense appeared confused and out of place. That brought the Bulls within 111-108.
"Zach had that look in his eye that he was going to get a basket," said Hoiberg.
LaVine, who can be a disinterested defender, then got on Butler. Hoiberg also knows drama. LaVine fought over the screen, forcing Butler to surrender the ball. It went to Tyus Jones, who drove and lost the ball. Then LaVine again escaped Butler and it was obvious the Bulls defense down the stretch was the more attuned. LaVine made a three from the right wing with 41 seconds left to tie the game at 111 with Gibson vainly trying to close.
"I'm not going to back down from anyone, either," said LaVine, averaging 26.5 points the last four games. "Jimmy's a really head strong dude, alpha. That's just how the game played out."
LaVine chased out on Butler as the Timberwolves inbounded after a timeout. Butler ran down the clock as Karl-Anthony Towns came up to set a screen, which Butler eschewed. Butler then drove right and along the baseline. Markkanen picked up Butler on a switch and Butler took advantage, circling around and driving in for a short bank shot on the left side to take a 113-111 lead with 21.5 seconds left.
It's great to see the fan base come out and watch me and Taj play, compete like we are still in a Bulls uniform, cheering for us, excited when we were out on the floor. That was huge. This was where it all started. They remember us for that; we love them right back for that.
But it would be LaVine Time this time.
Butler elected to ignore the switches this time on defense and stay with LaVine. Butler came out tight on the right wing. LaVine dribbled right, Butler lost him for a moment and then as LaVine shot, Butler went up. And fouled him shooting the three with 18.4 seconds left.
"I definitely fouled him," Butler admitted afterward.
LaVine then swished all three free throws for the 114-113 Bulls lead in the Bulls only national TV game of the season.
"I was confident I was going to knock those free throws down," said LaVine. "I'm starting to feel good and I embrace that (closing) role."
Jimmy time? Bulls fans have seen that before, Butler with big time winners. Though Butler was coy pregame about the significance of his return and even declined to meet with media while Gibson and coach Tom Thibodeau did, this was his moment. Butler had made no secret of his desire to remain with the Bulls last season. But management believed that group with Butler had gone as far as possible. The result was the big trade, one of the biggest in franchise history, of the three-time Bulls All-Star for LaVine, who was out with knee surgery, Dunn and the draft rights to Markkanen.
The Timberwolves with former Bulls coach Thibodeau had beaten the Bulls the last five straight. This was an opportunity to truly make that last statement. It would not happen.
LaVine again lined up to defend Butler, though Hoiberg clearly was the more innovative defensively down the stretch with a series of rotating defenders, sometimes switching the pick and roll, sometime blitzing, the Timberwolves offense seemingly confused and mostly becoming Butler isolations. Minnesota would score just 46 points on 35 percent shooting in the second half while the Bulls shot 50 percent in the second half.
Butler jumped out on top to receive the ball with LaVine shadowing. Butler dribbled for awhile as Towns again came up to screen. This time the Bulls changed up and Markkanen went with LaVine on Butler. Butler threw back on the left side to Towns, who missed a three with six seconds left. The rebound went long left to Jones in the corner. Jones passed to Butler, who ran to the left sideline right in front of the Bulls bench and Hoiberg. What a sweet moment it would be. Butler gathered himself, raised up with two seconds, shot from three, the ball hanging in the air ... .
Back rim! No good! Bulls win!
Butler, looking somber, strode off straight to the Timberwolves locker room.
"Never want to lose like that; it happens," Butler said after an exceptionally long post game shower and change. "I knew everybody thought I was going to shoot the ball. I trust KAT (Towns) like I trust myself. I've seen him make that shot time and again. We don't play hard all the time. We just have to figure out how to play hard; we'll figure it out."
Not that the Bulls are anywhere close to figuring it out, either.
But it was another step forward despite Dunn still being out with that post concussion. Here was a top Western Conference team with motivated former Bulls players and Butler having an MVP level season. Yet, it was the Bulls rebounding from a 17-point third quarter deficit to make all the right plays down the stretch while the Timberwolves were flummoxed. Even Thibodeau's outbursts hurt as when he apparently was yelling and gesticulating at Towns when Portis put back a Denzel Valentine miss with 8:36 left, the official interpreted it as meant for the him and assessed Thibodeau a costly technical foul in a one-point game.
"We got the 17-point lead and we didn't do what we needed to do," Thibodeau said in brief post game comments. "We're not good enough to think that the game is over five minutes into the third quarter. We messed around, we played with fire and we got burned."
Indeed, LaVine was hot after a modest start with 10 first half points. The Bulls led 30-27 after one quarter as Andrew Wiggins had 10 points, mostly losing LaVine on the weak side. It looked like the Timberwolves would take the game in the second quarter. The Bulls seemed to be studiously avoiding Markkanen, getting beaten on the offensive boards and Butler was rolling and loving it, a three at the close for a 67-56 halftime lead that was quickly 73-56 a few seconds into the second half.
Perhaps the pregame tribute would be the highlight.
Butler was introduced first for the Timberwolves and got a nice ovation, and then Gibson's seemed even louder. Then at 6:47 of the first quarter, the Bulls showed a video board tribute of Butler and Gibson as Bulls. Both got a standing ovation and saluted the fans after the video concluded. Both appeared grateful as Butler was when greeted post game in the Minnesota locker room by Bulls vice president John Paxson.
"Everybody knows I have a lot of love for this organization, this city, this fan base," said Butler. "Me and Taj talk about it all the time; this is where it started for both of us. It's great to see familiar faces. That's the kind of guy Pax is to come in say what's up, check in on me. I'm happy they're doing well; they deserve it, the city of Chicago does. It's great to see the fan base come out and watch me and Taj play, compete like we are still in a Bulls uniform, cheering for us, excited when we were out on the floor. That was huge. This was where it all started. They remember us for that; we love them right back for that."
Thibodeau was, as usual, positive and effusive about Chicago in his pregame comments, and Gibson was equally gracious.
"While the video was coming on I was thinking about my rookie year and the music in the United Center and thinking then to myself, ‘I made it.' It's hard to stick in the NBA and eight and a half years later I'm getting a tribute from a team I played my heart out for," said Gibson. "And not just any team, the Chicago Bulls. To have the city of Chicago stand up for me was amazing. This place was wonderful for me; became a man here. I put my head down thinking all those good memories coming back to me I didn't want to let go. Thibs saw the moment and stopped coaching for a minute. It was a long video and the crowd giving a standing ovation I was just shaking; it was surreal. You want to come in and play well, but the whole game you are shaking, proud and thinking about the memories; they said the first game back would be tough. It was a great time."
Especially for the Bulls thereafter as they hit the Timberwolves' starters with a 13-0 run to get back in the game, Markkanen making all three of his shots and LaVine and Denzel Valentine closing the quarter for an 89-86 Bulls lead. Minnesota took control to start the fourth as the Bulls reserves faltered and fell behind 94-89. With 7:35 remaining and the Bulls trailing 98-93, Hoiberg reinserted Markkanen and LaVine. And then for the last six minutes, other than a Holiday three, LaVine scored the rest of the Bulls points, all his 15 with drives, dunks, free throws, threes and mid range while also facing off against Butler.
It was the moment he and everyone else with the Bulls had been awaiting.
LaVine will not play Saturday against Washington as a precaution with a back to back. But he's coming fast.
"I don't think either one of us is going to back down, so it played out the right way for me this time," LaVine said about his Jimmy mano a mano. "He's an incredible big time player. I take the challenge; the team had the challenge as well. It was a little bit of a shootout and we came out on top. The emotions were there, the crowd was into it, I was into it. I think everybody on both sides were ready for this game for a long time.
"Shows we can go up and compete against anybody," LaVine added. "We've blown some leads, lost some games we should have won. We have talent on this team and the future is going to be really good for us as long as we lock in and keep working and keep striving for greatness; were going to try to turn this thing around really soon."
No mystery this time. The Butler didn't do it.