Tonight the Bulls find themselves up in Minnesota to take on the new-look Timberwolves at the Target Center in the first of two contests scheduled between the teams this season.
After a disappointingly slow start filled with all kinds of drama centered on ex-Bulls forward Jimmy Butler, the Timberwolves seem to found their groove. Minnesota has gone 4-2 since dealing Butler to Philadelphia for forwards Robert Covington, Dario Saric on November 12th. Both Covington and Saric are highly talented two-way players who can pick your pocket as well as stick a dagger in your heart from beyond the arc. Before their arrival the Wolves were not much of threat from downtown, but they are now, which only helps to ramp up the game of 7’0” center Karl Anthony-Towns, who can flat out dominate the paint, and also step outside the bend to knock-down a jumper when you least expect it. Towns, who was an All-Star last season, leads the Wolves in most categories, including minutes (33.9), points (19.9), rebounds (12.2) and blocks (1.94).
Two popular ex-Bulls who also call Minneapolis home these days are enjoying terrific seasons in their own right: Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
Rose, whom the Bulls tabbed with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, was averaging 18.9 points and 4.7 assists just before Thanksgiving. For most of the season he has been the first man off the Minnesota bench, and will likely be that guy again this evening. Heading into the holiday, Rose was back to his old Chicago glory days, playing 35 minutes a night, scoring 21.8 points, dishing 4.8 dimes and shooting .495 from the field (47-of-95), including .571 from downtown (16-of-28) over the Wolves’ last six games.
As for Gibson, the 6’9” 10-year vet has been rock steady in all phases, starting every night and averaging 11 points and 6.8 rebounds in anchoring Minnesota’s defense and making life miserable for opponents in the paint.
For the Bulls to give themselves a shot of coming out on top this evening, they’re going to need to establish a fast and consistent pace from the opening tip and be aggressive throughout the entire contest. It’s also important for them to keep Towns and Gibson in check by wrestling control of the glass at both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end, as that will help the Bulls ignite its offense by getting into transition, pushing the ball up the floor in a hurry and denying the Wolves the opportunity to set up defensively.
To be successful, Chicago must run early and often. However, when fastbreak opportunities aren’t readily available, the Bulls have to be smart, opening up the middle of the floor, spreading shooters all along the arc and freely sharing the ball with each other. Whenever a good look at the hoop materializes or a defensive crack appears, they have to be willing to go on the attack and force Minnesota onto its defensive heels.
As banged up as they are without the help of starters Kris Dunn (left MCL sprain) and Lauri Markkanen (right elbow sprain), as well as key reserves Bobby Portis (right MCL sprain) and Denzel Valentine (left ankle surgery), the Bulls can’t afford to hang their head. They have to go hard after every loose ball and pull down every rebound. They have to bring energy and a stubborn brashness night in and night out. They must show up with a hardnosed temperament geared to outworking opponents up and down the floor to live to fight another day.