CHICAGO — Considering that Chicago Bulls management, back when the NBA schedule was released this summer, probably circled Tuesday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in red — check that, in blood — and posted it on an executive suite bulletin board only added to the atmosphere at the United Center.
Here was Tom Thibodeau, so unceremoniously dumped by the Bulls in May 2015 despite his .647 winning percentage and three (in five) 50-victory seasons, barking and stalking the UC sideline again for the first time. His young Timberwolves squad got punched in their collective nose, hard, in falling behind 26-6 by the middle of the first quarter. And yet, they blinked, cleared their heads and walked off having won 99-94. It was only Minnesota’s seventh victory in 25 tries this season but, more emotionally, it was a vengeance/payback game for that team’s coach, who still heard cheers and applause when he trundled out to the court before tipoff.
“Getting the win was what we needed,” Thibodeau lied afterward.
OK, so “lied” might be overstating it. The Wolves did need a win, almost as badly as Thibodeau wanted to stick it to his old employers. He never came out and said so in four separate sessions across 30 hours or so with reporters before and after the game. Thibodeau made it all about his fond memories of Chicago, his appreciation of the opportunity and support the Bulls gave him (“Ninety-nine percent of it”) and his new team’s learning curve.
But anyone who knows the 58-year-old coach knows there were more than a few fist pumps and satisfied smiles behind closed doors over beating the team that had shown him theirs.
“We wanted to win the game for him,” guard Zach LaVine said. “We all know. It’s just another game, but it’s a little bigger.”
In hindsight now, Minnesota hopes their comeback in Chicago looms large as a breakthrough or turning point. A “Eureka!” moment that, even if it doesn’t propel them past Houston Saturday in Minneapolis (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) at least moves them to a plateau where they’re no longer dropping three out of every four games.
No one can dispute that the Wolves until Tuesday night had been bad. Their record was near the NBA’s bottom. Their home court, Target Center, has offered no refuge (3-9, including six consecutive losses). They have afflicted themselves with fatal quarter performances in many of their defeats. And they rarely have met a comfortable lead they could not squander, dropping seven games already in 2016-17 in which they led by 10 points or more.
“I tell our players all the time, don’t get lost in what other people are saying. The only thing that matters is, make sure you’re not skipping over any steps. Put everything you have into each day, do the right things…”
— Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau
Defensively, they have been a disaster. It’s bad enough that the Wolves rank 29th in opponents’ field-goal percentage, 25th in free-throws allowed, 22nd in points allowed per game and 27th in defensive rating. It’s worse that at 111.9, they are giving up nearly five points per 100 possessions than the league average (107.1), according to basketball-reference.com.
And they’re doing all this damage under the tutelage of Thibodeau, a fellow whose career, whose very essence, is defined by defense. In the 410 regular-season games he worked for the Bulls, his teams got torched for 115 points or more in regulation just 11 times. His Wolves teams did that 10 times in the first 24 games.
Minnesota’s offensive numbers have been strong: top 10 in offensive rating, offensive rebounding percentage, free-throw rate. They’ve got three starters averaging 20 points per game — Andrew Wiggins 22.2, Karl-Anthony Towns 21.4 and LaVine 20.5 — and together, the three 21-year-olds are outscoring their combined ages.
But hopefully Thibodeau’s residence in the Twin Cities and hotel suites on the road are on low floors. Or in hermetically sealed buildings.
“What wins in this league?” Thibodeau said. “Right now I’m pleased with where we are offensively. But defensively we have to change that. We’ve got to work at it. Understand how hard it is to win in this league and the intensity you have to play with all the time.”
Here’s something else that needs to be blended in to all the questions about hand-wringing over the Timberwolves and their underwhelming start: Patience. This is a league — more specifically, it’s the folks who cover, follow and, on occasion, work in this league — that gets not just sideways but stupid in its impatience.
Upon Thibodeau’s hiring as coach and president of basketball operations, Minnesota instantly was touted as a team destined to make a great leap this season. After all, it had improved from 16 to 29 victories last season with Sam Mitchell hobbled as interim coach (in the wake of Flip Saunders’ illness and death). People looked at the talent and at Thibodeau’s track record and presumed the Wolves would seize or compete for a lower playoff berth in the West.
But it all comes down to perspective. Towns, Wiggins and LaVine only get one day older every day. Thibodeau represents the Wolves’ fourth coach in four seasons, and one whose system and style necessarily force changes on his new team.
His success not just with Derrick Rose (when healthy) as a high-scoring, ball-dominant point guard but with a succession of overachieving scorers in the backup role (D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks, Nate Robinson) made it clear there would be adjustments or changes coming for Ricky Rubio, the quintessential pass-first, shoot-rarely playmaker.
Kris Dunn, the 22-year-old, four-year lottery pick from Providence? Rookie. Point guard. Under Thibodeau. ‘Nuff said.
Of course any transition, slight or dramatic, was going to take some time. Now fold in a bench of veterans (Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill, John Lucas III) who mostly have contributed advice to the young guys rather than help on the floor. And some effort and intensity issues with Wiggins. And stretches of selfishness, or at least tunnel vision, by Towns. And mistakes of aggression or downright hubris by LaVine.
“Expectations are a big thing. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to ‘em. We’re not living up to our own right now. We’re just trying to fight through it.”
— Zach LaVine
In short, the sort of stuff you’d expect 21 year olds, on a team with limited secondary options, to make. And yet the Wolves were supposed to be playing playoff-caliber ball … in this new system … by December.
“I tell our players all the time, don’t get lost in what other people are saying,” Thibodeau said. “The only thing that matters is, make sure you’re not skipping over any steps. Put everything you have into each day, do the right things…”
At that, Thibodeau was on a roll, his don’t-let-go-of-the-rope-isms coming fast and furious again.
To their credit, the Wolves have shown themselves enough glimpses of brighter days, via the fat leads they subsequently blew or big individual nights (three nights each scoring 30 points or more from Towns, Wiggins and LaVine), to hitch up their own expectations.
“Expectations are a big thing,” LaVine said. “Sometimes it’s hard to live up to ‘em. We’re not living up to our own right now. We’re just trying to fight through it. And it’s still a long season, just get back into the thick of things.”
There were encouraging signs vs. the Bulls. Rubio had a low-key double-double with 11 points and 10 assists, and restored order late after an attempt to run the offense through Wiggins’ hands turned a 95-91 Wolves lead into a 95-95 tie. Dunn was an afterthought Tuesday, but his last seven games have been more productive (6.9 points, 2.9 assists, 54.1 FG%) than his first 18 (3.3 ppg, 2.5 apg, 31.3 FG%).
Wiggins does manage to look awake and involved during certain frenetic stretches in games, and his 23 points and nine rebounds were accompanied by zero turnovers, a first this season. Towns shot 6-of-21 and scored 16 but grabbed 12 rebounds, found a couple teammates for assists and blocked three shots in the second half.
“There’s way different ways you can impact a game than by scoring 30 or 40 points,” last season’s Rookie of the Year said, as if reminding himself. “You can impact the game with energy, with enthusiasm, with passion. The way you’re playing. Talking. Playing defense.
“I was more proud of myself that even though I wasn’t shooting well at all, I was able to find different ways to impact the game much more than just scoring.”
And so it comes, the slow drip of maturity. It’s easy to forget, their talent obscuring their chronology, but the Wolves are moving along their learning curve with their three most important players still young enough to be in college. So maybe give them until the All-Star break to flex their postseason worthiness, OK?
Aldrich, asked what it’s like going through the rigorous NBA schedule led by 21 year olds, said: “Y’know, if there was a book, I would have probably read it this summer. No, they’re fun. They’re young, they’re energetic. They’ve just got to continue to learn. We’ve got a few of us who’ve been around the league a little bit, we’re just trying to teach the guys everything we know and help us find ways to get a win.”
Telling is one thing. Experiencing is another.
“There’s no shortcuts to being successful,” Towns said. “You’ve got to take the hard way all the time if you want to reach your goals and aspirations.”
Even a pair of No. 1 picks who’ve made their bones with offensive highlights and a two-time reigning dunk champion. Things like defense, consistency and intensity will be embraced eventually.
“People saying they’re disappointed in our team and the results early on, I feel we’re more than disappointed,” Towns said. “That’s just a sign of how competitive, first off, we are and how good we see ourselves being.
“Tonight’s a great step forward. For the next three days we have off, we’ve got to continue to practice, work on our game and get better. Keep building, block by block by block.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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