The Bulls Saturday were hoping to show the timbre of their play. But the sound was more like that of a decisive fall. The Bulls in the fourth quarter were cut down amidst a forest of their own mistakes and lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 122-104.
After leading 62-60 in an impressive first half and trailing by just four points entering the fourth quarter, the Bulls collapsed in an 18-3 Minnesota run that decided the game.
The Bulls dropped to 20-39 while the Timberwolves, playing without the injured Jimmy Butler, moved to 37-26. The Bulls play in Brooklyn Monday and Charlotte Tuesday before returning to the United Center to play Dallas Friday.
"Obviously, we're playing a lot of new guys," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg about the new starters, Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba for Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday. "We're having trouble getting organized at both ends. We're not communicating on
the defensive end and it's costing us. We're not doing a good job rotating over on the baseline when we get beat."
In attempting to further analyze and scrutinize its young players who have not played much this season while trying to compete, the Bulls, especially on defense, have been flummoxed these last two games against the 76ers and Timberwolves in pick and
roll coverages, and especially when switching, which is the basic element of their defense. Not exactly a fortress on defense, the Bulls had moved up from league worst defense in the first two months to close to the middle.
But they've been a mess and mass of confusion these last two games with Cameron Payne and Noah Vonleh also playing more prominent roles.
The Bulls were led by Zach LaVine in his return to Minnesota with an excellent game. He had 21 points, a team high seven assists and six rebounds. LaVine also was seven of eight on free throws and was dominant in a terrific second quarter (38-29 Bulls)
when he took over at point guard with Kris Dunn off the ball and had nine points and four assists. That produced a 15-5 Bulls run that gave the Bulls a 48-47 lead after trailing 17-6 to start the game.
"The second quarter was a thing of beauty," said Hoiberg. "The ball was flying up the floor. I loved our competitive spirit to come back and take a lead at the half. He's (LaVine) attacking the basket much better. You can see him getting more comfortable
and it was terrific to see him as a playmaker tonight."
Dunn didn't fare as well in his return with 10 points on four of 12 shooting with two assists and four turnovers. He and Lauri Markkanen have been loose and erratic since their All-Star weekend participation. Dunn is six for 23 with seven assists and
five turnovers. Markkanen is two for 16 and zero for seven on threes, though he has tried to push himself through. Markkanen has rebounded well and held Karl-Anthony Towns to 10 points and five of 14 shooting through three quarters.
"Gotta get some extra shots up," said Markkanen. "I see myself thinking too much. It's frustrating to not make shots, but it is what it is. Gotta work through it."
Nwaba had a second excellent game starting, getting 14 points and nine rebounds. His forceful driving and dunking was a big part of that second quarter run. He's 15 for 23 shooting mostly on drives in the two games and leads the team in minutes played.
Bobby Portis had 15 points, but just four after halftime following his career game Thursday in the one-point loss to the 76ers. Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and Felicio each had 11 points. Most of Payne's points came late in the fourth quarter
after the Bulls fell behind by 20 midway through. Felicio struggled again, particularly on defensive coverages as Jeff Teague with 25 points sliced up the Bulls in pick and roll. Andrew Wiggins had 23 points and Jamal Crawford off the bench added
19 with a trio of three pointers early in the fourth quarter that broke open the game and sent the Bulls reeling. The Bulls with their new starters once again left the team with a big deficit to open the game. Similarly, the start of the third quarter
was erratic and again the reserves were better as a group.
"We're gonna get that chemistry down," promised LaVine. "We only had a couple practices with that lineup."
It was the defense most unhinged, especially.
"We have to be committed to coming out and getting stops," said Hoiberg.
It's probably unlikely as long as the Bulls are going to play so many players who have not been in the regular rotation all season.
Defense is a team exercise mastered by repetition; there obviously cannot be much in this stretch with various lineups.
The Bulls could point to some positives.
Nwaba impacted the game for the second straight game with his hustle and defense, driving the ball relentlessly and pushing out of the backcourt more vociferously than any of his teammates. Vonleh in just 14 minutes showed a deft three-point shooting
touch, but especially strong defense rebounding. He had eight points and six rebounds in that limited time. Felicio was five of eight with a pair of blocks, finishing well on some pick and roll plays with LaVine. But Felicio refuses to even attempt
a jump shot or look at the basket, squeezing the court for teammates. Though Payne did most of his scoring late, he was acceptable in running the offense and through the first half was second in plus/minus rating. His play has been more controlled
than last year when he came to the Bulls after the trade with Oklahoma City.
The big story in Minneapolis was the absence of Butler, who apparently tore a meniscus in the Timberwolves' Friday loss in Houston. The team then had aircraft problems and didn't arrive back in Minneapolis until late Saturday. Butler then went for the
MRI, which showed the damage. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was typically evasive about Butler's fate. If he has surgery to repair the injury, Butler would miss the rest of the season. There is another procedure that would keep him out about a
month, but could produce tendinitis problems later. Teammates indicated Butler was promising to return for the playoffs.
"The good news is it's not an ACL," Thibodeau told media before the game. "That was the big concern. That was the positive, so we'll go from there. I think Jimmy's still gathering information. So we'll have more information in terms of course of
action and how we'll proceed from there.
"I'm not going to elaborate other than we're going to say it's a meniscus injury right now," said Thibodeau.
Next man up?
"You're faced with different challenges all the time and that's the beauty of this league," said Thibodeau. "Whether it's the injuries, the schedule, travel issues, whatever you have, you have to be ready to go. I like our team a lot. If you have injury,
then a guy has to come in there and get the job done, understand what their job is and go out there and do it. A guy like Jimmy, you don't replace him individually. We have to do that collectively."
Though the Bulls had mixed results from most of their new additions other than Nwaba, it was another excellent game for LaVine against his former team. He was the star back in Chicago earlier this month, scoring the team's last 11 points in the win
over the Timberwolves.
After the Bulls fell behind quickly and pulled within 31-24 after one quarter, it was LaVine's driving and creative passing that gave the Bulls their best hope of the game. He assisted consecutively on a Dunn three, a Nwaba dunk and a Felicio roll to
the rim in that 15-5 stretch. The Bulls would shoot 62 percent in that second quarter with six fast break points to none for Minnesota and 10 assists on 15 baskets. But the Bulls would have 11 assists combined in the other three quarters with a mostly
one pass and a shot offense.
Nwaba and Portis kept the Bulls competitive in the third quarter with an assist from Vonleh. But the start of the fourth was a fatal mess, six of seven misses, a pair of turnovers, a failure to get a pair of defensive boards that resulted in Crawford
threes. Timber! Wolves were growing and the Bulls couldn't do enough.