There’s a shadow growing over the Bulls season as the Bulls Saturday lost 111-96 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a story that seems to be repeating constantly. It’s competitive play for three quarters, and then just one outlier from which they cannot recover. It’s a basketball groundhog day, the Bulls unable to change the script and waking up to the nightmare again and again and again.
“I don’t know what it is... I don’t” Zach LaVine was saying after another loss, stammering some and trailing off. “I’m at a loss for words. I don’t want to say anything I don’t mean. I don’t know; it’s tough.
“You can only say so much because we keep doing the same thing over and over again,” said LaVine with 28 points, eight rebounds and four assists in his return to Minneapolis. “You can only say so much about it. I’m doing the best I can. We do some things out there just..you guys see it. It makes you turn your head (away). ‘What the hell are we doing?’”
LaVine was effective and Jabari Parker had another excellent offensive game, the latter with 27 points, seven rebounds and four assists. They combined for 16 free throw attempts. Parker is averaging 20.6 points and 8.8 rebounds his last five games while shooting 40 percent on threes.
"I’d say overall for me — I can just speak for myself — I am just trying to keep fighting and do what I can to make it easier for everybody,” said Parker. “Just trying to improve myself; that’s all I can focus on. All I know is if I am doing what I can, improving, then I can look myself in the mirror; it’s just about trying to improve. The game is about makes and misses and also what you do to stay in the game, so it’s a bigger picture than just the jumper.”
Justin Holiday had another competent all around game with 14 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, though four of 13 on threes. Wendell Carter Jr. mostly out of foul trouble had 12 points and eight rebounds. But he is at a major disadvantage against the taller offensive centers like Joel Embiid, and especially Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns proved too big and dominating with 35 points, 22 rebounds (a 58-40 Minnesota rebounding advantage) and six assists and everyone wondering why Jimmy Butler was upset. Towns couldn’t be controlled going to the boards with nine offensive among his 22.
And Derrick Rose playing as effortlessly efficient as in his All-Star years added 22 points off the bench on nine of 13 shooting with a team high in plus/minus rating.
Rose led a bench domination of 48-15 for Minnesota as the Bulls depth with all the injuries continues to be badly exposed. Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis, Lauri Markkanen, Chandler Hutchison and Denzel Valentine remain out. Plus, the Bulls three point guards in Ryan Arcidiacono, Cameron Payne and Shaquille Harrison combined to play 54 minutes without a point. Jeff Teague and Rose combined for 40 points. Tough to overcome that.
Which wasted a lot of good things on defense for the Bulls, who didn’t give up or give in, leading 22-20 after the first quarter, 50-49 at halftime and then trailing by just five points entering the fourth quarter.
“I thought we followed the game plan beautifully,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “They shot 40 percent and just over 20 percent from three. But we just couldn’t come up with the rebounds when we got a lead to extend and then I thought we came out flat in the third and they built it up and in the fourth they put us away.”
This time it was the desolate fourth quarter open that had this play closing quickly. The Bulls held two of the Timberwolves starters, Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington, to a combined one of 30 shooting and zero for 14 on threes. The Bulls rotated and covered as adeptly as they can with their own roster limitations. But then with having to go to the bench since Holiday, LaVine and Parker all played between 38 and 40 minutes, the Bulls couldn’t find offense again.
“I tried to stagger the minutes and have at least one of Jabari or Zach on the floor at all times,” said Hoiberg. “Guys are playing heavy minutes; we’re playing through Zach and Jabari, obviously, a lot. Those guys both had really good nights. But we go through lulls with certain lineups out there and you have to find a way to hang in there. We did that and had a lead on the road at halftime against a very good team and were right there going into the fourth. But just got off to a horrendous start and never really regrouped.”
The Bulls opened the fourth quarter missing eight of their first nine shots. And then when they came out of a timeout with 6:36 left in the game and botched the inbounds pass for a turnover, there was little left but to watch the Timberwolves disappearing into the distance.
LaVine, meanwhile, got an enthusiastic welcome when he was introduced and was grateful.
“I was a fan favorite when I was here,” said LaVine. “I’d hope I’d get a good ovation. I did good in the community, I was always nice to the fans. I grew up in Minnesota. You put a lot of heart and time into place, so you want to be appreciated and I appreciated the fans doing that for me. Same for D-Rose. I know whenever he plays the Bulls, it’s a reunion too; so it’s fun game.”
Rose was more circumspect afterward, though he’s been through more than his fellow ACL victim.
“Everybody on the same page and the players we have are professional and great dudes and that’s what we needed,” said Rose. “I’m just taking what the defense is giving me; they’re giving me open shots. Just playing my game and not rushing anything, letting it come to me naturally. Play hard and make plays for this team; doesn’t matter where I play. Push the ball and play my game.”
Rose did that taking more of a point guard role with 10 third quarter points when the Timberwolves broke from a see-saw game. But as much as Carter tried, Towns was too much for a Timberwolves team 5-2 since trading Butler and 9-11 overall. The Bulls are 5-15.
“He’s (Towns) going to be a perennial all-star, top 10 dude in the NBA; he’s a top 10 dude in the NBA right now,” said LaVine. "He’s off the charts. He’s hard to guard once he gets going. He’s so skilled, can shoot from the three, post up, he’s got a crazy motor for offensive and defensive rebounds. He had a big night.”
And the Bulls had another night like many before.