Bulls suffer tough loss to Timberwolves 121-117

Zach LaVine had 30 points in the defeat.
by Sam Smith
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Zach LaVine scored 30 points but it wasn't enough as the Bulls fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves 121-117 on Sunday night. Karl-Anthony Towns and DeAngelo Russell had 27 points each for the Timberwolves. Minnesota shot a perfect 25-for-25 from the free-throw line while the Bulls went just 8-for-13 from the charity stripe. The Bulls (22-30) will look to bounce back on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies (26-25) on Monday night.

OK, repeat after me, "It's no time to panic, it's no time to panic."

Aaah, now what feels better. So, you say the Bulls just lost 121-117 to the NBA's worst team, the Minnesota Timberwolves who are bottom three in just about every significant defensive metric. Aaaaugh, Charlie Brown, good grief.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us, I'll tell you that," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, mostly about yet another weak defensive showing. "I don't know where we stand (defensively), but we need to be a whole lot better than we are."

Pretty much stagnant, it seems, as the now 14-40 Timberwolves shot 49.4 percent and 44 percent on threes a game after the Atlanta Hawks shot 56 percent. Basically since the big late March trades, and we do know it's not ideal to make all these changes essentially in games, opponents are shooting a combined 50 percent overall. That Era of Good Feelings of the three-game winning streak against the Nets, Pacers and Raptors has deteriorated into a pair of disappointing losses. And in addition to the defensive deficiencies, a widening concern about what happened to the support for Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.

Highlights from Zach LaVine's 30-point night against the Timberwolves.

The stars, especially LaVine, appeared with LaVine scoring 30 points and vainly attempting to carry the Bulls to the finish line.

LaVine had 14 third quarter points after the Timberwolves took an 11-point lead. Coming off his 50-point effort against the Hawks, LaVine got that third quarter run started with back to back threes and then led a 13-6 Bulls close to the third quarter with two more jumpers and a scoring drive.

That got the Bulls within 91-87 after three quarters. The Bulls inched closer four minutes into the fourth with some bench support to within 98-97. But Donovan's attempt to buy a few more minutes rest for Vucevic and LaVine backfired when the Timberwolves scored five straight for a 103-97 lead with 6:36 remaining in the game.

There clearly still was plenty of time, and LaVine quickly made a three and Vucevic with 18 points added a followup on a Troy Brown Jr. miss. Brown had his season and Bulls-high 15 points as he again finished the game for defense with Daniel Theis.

Troy Brown Jr.

Troy Brown Jr. had perhaps his best game as a Bull, scoring 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds off the bench.

But they weren't enough to thwart D'Angelo Russell and Karl Anthony Towns, each with 27 points, Towns' wide open three with 44.3 seconds left for a 119-113 lead proving too much for two more LaVine driving scores to offset.

"We've just gotta figure out how to win, man," LaVine said afterward following an emotional reunion with former teammate Towns who with the Timberwolves was honoring Towns' late mother at the game. "Just frustrating losing. We're a better team and we're playing in winnable games. You've gotta come out ready to hoop. I feel like we didn't come out the right way. Tried to turn it on in the second half and obviously they've got some big time players on their team and so do we. Just gotta figure out how to win. What we're trying to do is take it game by game. And obviously we didn't take care of it today."

The loss dropped the Bulls record to 22-30 now with just 20 games left in the 72-game season. The Bulls remained 10th for the final Eastern Conference play-in tournament spot, but are losing ground now four games behind the eighth place Knicks. Toronto in 11th is two games behind the Bulls.

Highlights from Chicago's Sunday night game vs. Minnesota.

"We have to be a team that is physical when the ball enters the paint," stressed Donovan. "We've got to put our bodies in plays. There are guys driving and we have to either take a charge or go vertical. We have to put our bodies in plays."

It's also proving to be a difficult dilemma for Donovan.

The team's strength is with its offensive players like LaVine and now Vucevic. So to augment the defense, Donovan has been playing Theis and Brown more. But that limits the production and participation of Coby White and Lauri Markkanen, the latter with eight points on just four shots in 19 minutes. White had 11 points and three steals, but again committed detrimental late turnovers.

Thad Young perhaps is tiring some, uncharacteristically committing three turnovers in the first four minutes of the game as the Bulls quickly fell behind 18-9. They kept climbing back, within three points after one quarter, back down 11 at halftime giving up 66 first half points, within four after three quarters. And then within that single point with seven minutes left as Brown matched LaVine's seven fourth quarter points.

But it became one of those too familiar climbing uphill games that feel like Lucy pulling away the football. You just know it's coming even if you still believe you can overcome.

Rookie Patrick Williams probably can understand. It may not be the rookie wall for him as much as the Great Wall. Williams still starting was scoreless in 26 minutes with one rebound and zero assists. He's scored four points with three rebounds over 52 minutes the last two games. Donovan said he's not concerned.

"The ball is going to go through Vooch quite a bit," Donovan explained, "Zach is going to have the ball in his hands. I think he (Williams) tries to play within himself. I respect that about him. When you get a guy who tries to be aggressive when it's not there, it's tough. He tried to put it down, tried to get to his midrange. He tried to take it to the basket. I also don't want him being aggressive and attacking the basket and not reading the defense (to) make the right basketball play."

Still, there's an unbalanced offensive load for LaVine and Vucevic with the starters since Tomas Satoransky tends to be more of a facilitator and Young has been a lesser part of the offense with the arrival of Vucevic. Vucevic did have some foul problems early, but he got just 13 shots. He also had five assists and five rebounds. But Vucevic had just two free throws, again the free throw line disparity proving fatal as the Bulls were eight of 13 from the free throw line. Minnesota was 25 of 25. With 38 threes attempted, the Bulls did seem to revert to more perimeter play away from the interior post play that had been more successful in the recent three-game winning streak.

Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine jams it with authority in the second quarter against the Timberwolves.

"I thought we were just OK on offense," said Donovan. "I thought we could've been better. We shot the ball well, we shared it (51.1 percent with 30 assists). I thought the biggest difference for us offensively was our inability to get to the free throw line and their ability to get there. Defensively, we tried to mix up some things in terms of trapping Russell and trapping (rookie Anthony with 15 points) Edwards. We pretty much tried to trap Towns every time down low. Fouling really hurt us immensely in terms of getting into that bonus early in the second quarter and fouls throughout the second half."

Theis had 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench and has been playing an increasing role because of his fiery defensive presence. He played more minutes that everyone but LaVine, who was also tied for the team lead in assists with six and rebounds with seven. But LaVine still suffers from an uncharitable whistle as he had just one free throw attempt, and that with 11.3 seconds left on a potential three point play.

That LaVine drive through virtually the entire Minnesota defense became crucial. He missed the free throw, which left Minnesota's lead at 119-117. Towns then made both his free throws to clinch the shaky victory in which the Timberwolves survived three turnovers in the last two minutes.

"That was a big game for us," said Brown. "We've got to win that one."

Perhaps Charlie Brown was onto something when he said, "Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask ‘Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.'"

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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