Bulls fall to Wolves 99-94

Now, that one really hurt.

The Bulls Tuesday lost a 21-point second quarter lead at home to the last place Minnesota Timberwolves in former coach Tom Thibodeau’s return, the Bulls fourth loss already this season to teams last or next to last in their division and the biggest blown lead by any team in the NBA this season. The defeat dropped the Bulls to 13-11 and fighting off an inability to break away from being labeled average.

“It isn’t the first time (losing to team with a poorer record),” said an unusually subdued Dwyane Wade, who was ejected with 14 seconds left in the game for questioning a non call. “It’s bad losing at home any time, but, of course, when you lose against a team you shouldn’t lose to it feels worse. We’ve said it, we have to find a way to fix it. We play very well against the good teams; we play very sub par against the teams not as good, record wise. We have to figure out a way to win these ball games and until we do it’s going to be an up and down season.”

It’s not what anyone wants or expects, but it’s become a worrisome pattern for the Bulls with losses to now the Timberwolves and Mavericks when they had the poorest records in the league or were tied for poorest, and to teams well below .500, like the Lakers and Nuggets. Plus, this was the second home loss to a bottom feeder team after the loss to the Lakers as well as home losses to teams fighting to stay above .500, like the Trailblazers and Knicks.

Not a good sign, and hardly because it was a Minnesota team struggling with blowing the most late leads in the league.

“We needed a win,” he said. “Getting the win was what we needed.”

The Timberwolves got it on the boards against the league’s No. 2 overall rebounding team and No. 1 on the offensive boards, a 49-42 Minnesota overall rebounding margin with 15 offensive rebounds and 16 fast break points. Plus a 12-2 second half fast break margin when the young Timberwolves outhustled and ran the Bulls into the loss.

“The two biggest things we talked about were offensive rebounds, a thing that can give a team confidence, and transition, and they exposed us on both of those tonight,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We took our foot off the gas and let them right back in the game and that was the disappointing thing to allow that to happen.”

The Bulls got a terrific effort from Jimmy Butler with 27 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals, two within 30 seconds late in the game with the Bulls trailing 91-87. Those two plays led to Bulls scores, a Wade lob to Butler and a Butler 17-footer that enabled the Bulls to tie the game at 91 with 1:34 left.

Rajon Rondo sat out after suffering a sprained ankle in practice Monday. Jerian Grant started for him. Hoiberg said Michael Carter-Williams will get an evaluation Friday and if it is positive could return next week. But after a brilliant first quarter in which the Bulls scored 38 points and shot 72.7 percent for a 38-22 lead, the Bulls not only quickly squandered their advantage by leading just 56-52 at halftime, but came up short a scorer.

Though the Bulls always talk about defense and rebounding as their edge—and it is vital—if they don’t get Wade to produce offensively with Butler, it has proven a struggle.

Wade had an imperfect second half, shooting one of six. Butler scored 18 second half points; no other Bulls player had more than four. And the Timberwolves were double teaming Butler and basically no one else.

The Bulls reserves outscored Minnesota’s 23-9, but the Wolves don’t much use their bench. Four Minnesota starters played at least 37 minutes; only Butler did for the Bulls. Zach LaVine led Minnesota with 24 points and played 43 minutes. In the second half, Bulls reserves played 47 minutes with eight points. Minnesota reserves played just 15 minutes after halftime.

Robin Lopez had 14 points and four blocks, including an impressive straight up one on Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Taj Gibson had 10 points and a ferocious early second half slam dunk over Towns and Gorgui Dieng with a blowout having already become a nail biter.

Score tied at 91, Bulls home, young team with a recent history of late collapses. Got them right where you want them, right? Turns out, no.

Andrew Wiggins, who had 23 points and nine rebounds, pulled up from the left wing and made a 22 footer with 1:19 left for a 93-91 Minnesota lead. Butler dribbled into the front court, and he was doing it all for the Bulls in the fourth quarter, five of their seven field goals, both of their steals, tied for the rebounding lead, making their only three and half their free throws, scoring 13 of the team’s 19 fourth quarter points. Usually, Wade is there for support, though not this time as no other starter made a fourth quarter field goal.

Butler dropped the ball to Wade, who couldn’t beat LaVine from the right wing and missed a well defended fadeaway three. Ricky Rubio rebounded the long miss and threw ahead to a streaking LaVine with no Bulls back for a layup and 95-91 Minnesota lead with 52.3 seconds left.

“They got out and ran and beat us down the court a couple of times,” said Gibson. “Long rebounds, their guards were in their rebounding. Those were some big offensive rebounds coming down the stretch. Their guards were taking off, lot of fast breaks. Rubio came up big late with a couple that really hurt. They played a strong game late; that’s a talented young team.”

The Bulls went to Butler, who missed short on a step back jumper from 20 feet with 44.9 seconds left. Towns missed short. Wade then drove in from the right side and was sandwiched at the basket by LaVine and Towns and blocked. No call. He slammed his hand angrily toward official Ben Taylor and was called for two technical fouls and ejected as the Bulls were fouling LaVine dribbling out with 14.1 seconds.

“Frustration and I told the truth,” said Wade, cryptically.

The Timberwolves closed it out with four free throws, scoring eight straight points before a Butler three with 8.9 seconds left for the final five-point margin.

“Any loss is disappointing, especially on our home floor with the lead we had,” acknowledged Butler. “We let up; gave up a lead and lost the game. There are teams we should beat, yes. But we got away from what it said we should do on that (scouting) board before the game, get back, rebound, help. They outhustled us, outmanned us. Hustle plays like that lead to open shots, fouls, layups; they got more of them that we did.”

It didn’t look like it would be that way in as good a first quarter as the Bulls played all season, a 26-6 lead less than seven minutes into the game with Lopez scoring easily over Towns and Grant making a pair of threes. The Bulls scored in 11 of 12 possessions to get that lead and looked like they’d make it a painful night for the Wolves.

It looked like Wolves, off to a terrible start tot their season, would continue their losing as the Bulls raced to a 51-30 lead midway through the second quarter. The Bulls probably lost the game there as Minnesota closed the quarter with a 16-1 run behind unlikely jump shooting from Gorgui Dieng while pounding the Bulls on the boards with a 15-6 margin and six offensive rebounds, all leading to points. It even came with most of the Bulls starters playing.

“I think we got frustrated from the standpoint of the way we gave up the lead so fast,” said Wade. “Coming to halftime we were only up four. Then they have rhythm and we are playing from behind. We never quite came back from that as a team, having the big lead, playing exceptionally well, then allowing them to score in 10 of the last 11 possessions (of the half) and getting back in the game.”

The Bulls got some big plays to start that third quarter, Gibson’s slam dunk on that offensive rebound, a Wade three after Minnesota took its first lead of the game midway through the third quarter. But with Butler going cold shooting one of eight in the third, there was no one to take his place with Wade plain. Minnesota led 78-75 after three quarters.

The fourth was a tug-of-war and neither team seemed to have the grip. The Bulls shot 32 percent and Minnesota 30. Wiggins and Towns were a combined two of nine shooting. But other than Butler, the Bulls were two of 13 overall and zero for five from the four other starters. The Bulls needed two guys; they got one in the fourth quarter and it wasn’t enough.

That makes it 3-3 at home for the Bulls since the end of the November road trip in the extended stretch of home games into early January. If that doesn’t change, it will be, as Wade warns, a very average season.