As has happened so often this long season, the Timberwolves followed an encouraging step forward with a dramatic step back.
And so it was Sunday at Target Center. Two days after returning from Phoenix with their biggest victory of the season, the Wolves were beaten 104-97 by Chicago.
Or was that beaten up? The Bulls (38-31) were shorthanded — without Derrick Rose, Rip Hamilton and Joakim Noah — but just as physical as ever. They punched the Wolves in the nose early in the first quarter and Minnesota didn’t recover until it was too late.
Chicago played harder, rebounded better and generally played with a toughness Minnesota couldn’t match while winning for the seventh straight time vs. the Wolves. Guard Nate Robinson scored 22 points off the bench with 10 assists and a couple of dagger three-pointers late. Carlos Boozer had 19 and Jimmy Butler had 10.
The Wolves got 28 points from Derrick Williams and 15 each from Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. But Minnesota (24-44) simply didn’t get going quickly enough.
“We just didn’t play hard enough at the start of the game,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. Actually, the Wolves never really played physically enough. The Bulls outrebounded the Wolves 52-32, with 20 offensive rebounds.
“We knew they were going to be physical,” guard J.J. Barea said. “That’s what they do. And they started it from the beginning of the game.”
The Wolves had an early 12-5 lead, but Chicago finished the quarter on an 18-4 run and never looked back. Eventually, the Wolves joined the fray. Down 13 with nine minutes left in the game, three-pointers by Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved and Williams helped push the Wolves within 90-85 on Dante Cunningham’s jumper with 6:21 left.
But at the other end, Luol Deng grabbed an offensive rebound over Budinger and fed Robinson, who hit a three-pointer to end the surge, pumping his fist as he ran back down the court. Moments later, a three-point play by Gibson pushed the lead back to 11 and the Wolves’ rally was over.
“We need to respond,” Pekovic said. “And we didn’t respond until the second half. We didn’t respond at the right time.”
Afterward, Rubio, sitting at his locker, talked with admiration about how the Bulls, though shorthanded, came out with the same intensity as they always do. “They could complain about the guys they have hurt, but they don’t do that,” Rubio said. “If they can do that, we can do that, too. … In this league if you don’t play aggressive, you’re nothing.”
Wolves forward Kevin Love will have a CT scan of his right hand taken locally late this week, then have it sent to his New York surgeon in the hope that he will be cleared to return to full- contact workouts. But even if he is cleared — Love had surgery Jan. 15 to repair the break, the second in the hand this season — there is no guarantee he will play again this season. First, it will be difficult to get him full-contact practices to test the hand, though much of that could be simulated in one-on-one or two-on-two workouts with coaches and teammates. “That’s something we’ll have to talk about,” Love said about a potential return should he be cleared. “I know I’ll have the confidence to come back and play. It’s just what the doctor says.”
The good news is that Love says his hand feels good, much better than at any time during his first recovery from the injury. He has full range of motion in the hand and is only working on getting it stronger. “I’m shooting a lot better [than the first time],’’ he said. “It’s back to how it used to feel.”
Ultimately, Love said he hopes to play at least a little at the end of what has been a disappointing season. “It’s been tough for everybody involved, including myself,” he said.
• Love, part of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in London, was presented with his Olympic championship ring in a pregame ceremony Sunday. “I got it a size up so I can fit my fat fingers into it when I’m 50, 60 years old,” Love joked.
• Williams’ 28 points matched his career high, set March 17.