CHICAGO – In a 114-113 loss Friday, longtime teammates Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson maybe discovered you can’t go happily home again and the Timberwolves again proved they can’t beat one of the Eastern Conference worst teams on the road.
After losing games at Brooklyn, Orlando and Atlanta this season, the Wolves were beaten by a Bulls team that had lost its last seven games.
They also were beaten by one of three players traded away last summer for Butler, losing when former Wolves guard Zach LaVine scored his team’s final eight points. Included were the ultimate winning free throws – three of them – with 18.4 seconds left after the Wolves led by as many as 17 points early in the third quarter.
“We’re not good enough to think the game is over five minutes into the third quarter,” Wolves coach Tom Thibdoeau said. “When you do that, we messed around, we played with fire and we got burned.”
When you do that, you lose on the road for the 10th time in the last 11 games, even while the Wolves’ home winning streak currently stands at 12 consecutively.
On Friday, LaVine won a duel of guards and the Bulls won a game that brought the emotion from reunions on both sides.
Unless, of course, you’re LaVine, who claims to have coolly played it with a 35-point, 5-rebound performance just like he was hooping in the park with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and other young Wolves with whom he grew up his first three NBA seasons in Minnesota.
Butler delivered a 38-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist night. He missed the night’s final shot – a three-pointer from the left wing -- that would have won the game back.
Trailing 111-106 with 1:20 left, the Bulls scored eight of the game’s final 10 points and LaVine scored all them, starting with a springy dunk as he came free roaring down the lane and ending with two three-point plays that included one shot and those three free throws made.
“It wasn’t really emotional,” LaVine said after playing his 11th game back from season-ending knee injury last February. “I think we were all just into the game. We all wanted this, so it was a battle.”
It apparently was emotional enough, though, that the Wolves lost by a single point on a night Thibodeau received a fourth-quarter technical foul for yelling at Towns, one of his own players.
“I don’t want to get into that,” Thibodeau said.
Ultimately, LaVine won it for the Bulls after Butler fouled him on a three-point shot attempt.
“I fouled him, I definitely fouled him,” Butler said. “He stepped up and made all three. It’s part of the game. Obviously, you never want to foul, you never want to lose like that. But it happens sometimes.”
The Wolves still had two chances to win the game after LaVine made those three free throws after Butler had given his team a 113-111 lead with 21 seconds left. But Towns missed a three-pointer after Butler passed him the ball and then Butler missed a three-pointer himself at the buzzer after Tyus Jones, playing down the stretch instead of starter Jeff Teague, grabbed the offensive rebound.
“I knew everybody thought I was going to shoot the ball,” Butler said. “I trust KAT like I trust myself. I’ve seen him make that shot time and time again.”
The Bulls welcomed both Butler and Gibson back by playing a videoboard tribute during an early timeout that featured footage of the two clowning around together early in their careers there.
“I saw it,” Butler said. “I saw myself with no hair. It reminds me never to go back to that.”
He did allow himself, though, to look up and watch the video while Thibodeau coached on in the huddle.
“It was cool,” Butler said. “Everybody knows I have a lot of love for this organization, this city. Me and Taj talk about it all the time: This is where it started for both of us. It was great to see familiar faces…You have to realize this is a business. Not a lot of guys stay in one place forever. They moved in a different direction. It is what it is. I still get to play basketball.
“We’re still doing OK, We could be doing better, but I’m happy where we’re at.”
Butler still gets to play in Minnesota while LaVine plays on in a new uniform in Chicago.
“It was different,” Towns said about opposing his friend for the first time. “Zach’s a tremendous player. He hit those free throws when he needed to hit them. Those are things he has been doing for the Timberwolves for years and tonight he found a way to do it for Chicago.”
The one-point final margin came after the Bulls gained one point when Thibodeau received a technical foul for screaming not at the referees but at Towns with 8 ½ minutes left.
He got whistled anyway.
“Yeah, he did,” Towns said. “He was yelling at me. The game was so crazy, I could see how it could be taken that way. It happens. That’s not what cost us the game. It has nothing to do with that. What cost us the game is being up by 17 and not closing them out. Up by 17, you have to end them.
“You can’t give a team like this life. They’ll quit. We gave them life. We gave them hope. We gave them confidence and it led to us being the loser tonight.”