CHICAGO – The thunder and affection expressed during Wednesday's Target Center homecoming behind them, the Timberwolves played on without newly acquired Kevin Garnett on Friday in a 96-89 loss to the Bulls.
Garnett was scratched from the lineup, a decision intended to preserve his 38-year-old body for one night as the Wolves played the front end of a back-to-back game.
That doesn't mean he was absent. Garnett suited up and spent much of his night on the bench in conversation with Andrew Wiggins when the Wolves rookie star wasn't in the game, or engaged with other teammates in discussion.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders had a running chat himself, with former Bulls star Scottie Pippen seated courtside.
"It was good," said Wolves rookie Adreian Payne, who started at power forward in place of Garnett. "KG talked the whole game. That's what we need."
Friday's loss fulfilled nearly every objective, whether stated or otherwise: It kept Garnett fresh for Saturday's game against Memphis at Target Center, enabled coach Flip Saunders to propagate a season-long promise to develop young talent and kept the Wolves alive and well in the arms' race for the NBA's bottom and the best mathematical lottery chances to attain a top draft pick.
Both New York and Philadelphia, in competition with Minnesota for the No. 1 draft position, both won Friday.
The Wolves, meanwhile, trailed by four points after one quarter, seven at halftime and by as many as 10 by late in the third quarter. But they briefly took a one-point lead with 4:49 left thanks to experimental fourth-quarter lineups that included rookies Payne, Zach LaVine and little-used Glenn Robinson III as well as improvised offensive sets needed to accommodate the untested lineup combinations.
"We don't want them to take their lumps," Saunders said, responding to a question about playing his young guys. "We want to give ourselves a chance to win, like tonight. Hopefully, you'll find ways to do that. I was happy how we played. I was happy how our young guys competed."
Saunders noted his team's defense — recently improved with the addition of the mobile, long-limbed Payne and now Garnett — held Chicago to his goal of under 40 percent shooting. The Bulls shot just 38.5 percent but ultimately won for the seventh time in nine games because of a 9-1 run late in which Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy all asserted themselves.
The Bulls began the game without injured stars Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol and then lost veteran Taj Gibson in the second quarter. Butler provided 28 points and 12 rebounds, and Noah approached a triple-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Dunleavy made five three-pointers on his way to 21 points.
"Their All-Stars made plays," Saunders said, referring to Butler and Noah. "That's what you want your All-Stars to do."
Meanwhile, Garnett served as a de facto coach, instructing on the bench during action and timeouts.
"My thing is just being productive," he said before Friday's game. "All year, I've been having issues with back-to-backs. I've tried to practice as much as I can. I want to be productive. The situation is, I haven't done most back-to-backs. This year, I told 'em we'll see how it goes, be patient with me with that and I don't see that probably changing or nothing."
Saunders deprived an announced sellout crowd the chance to see Garnett and Noah continue their rivalry and escapades. In November, Garnett pretended he was going to chomp on Noah's fingers while both jockeyed for position in a kerfuffle that generated Internet clicks.
On Friday, Noah was asked about Garnett's return to Minnesota and if he thought it was kind of "cool." Noah practically dripped sarcasm.
"So cool, man," he said. "Unbelievable, great story. I love it. Puts butterflies in my stomach."