CHICAGO – By bringing their coach victory in his return to Chicago, the Timberwolves also learned a valuable lesson in Tuesday’s unlikely 99-94 comeback victory:
If they’re determined to have a bad quarter, better to make it the first one.
“I guess that’s one way to look at it,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward.
A team usually vexed by third quarters, or sometimes fourth quarters, the Wolves instead found themselves trailing 26-6 after just seven minutes Tuesday before they reversed course with rebounding and defense, of all things.
They surrendered 38 first-quarter points and then never allowed more than 19 in the next three quarters in a game that started when Chicago fans affectionately welcomed Thibodeau back after 19 months away and ended with him getting a pat from former player Jimmy Butler before Thibodeau strolled evenly into the good night.
“If you’re going to have a bad one, it gives us more time to make it up,” Wolves guard Zach LaVine said of the slow start. “But we’ve got to stop doing that.”
Their comeback from a 21-point, second-quarter deficit was the NBA’s biggest this season.
When it was over, Chicago media members tried to get a man whose team had started the season 6-18 to wax poetic about what it meant to win in his return to United Center, the arena where he coached the Bulls for five seasons.
“As you’re probably aware, we need a win,” Thibodeau said drolly. “Getting the win was what we needed.”
They delivered it with that aforementioned defense and rebounding as well as by making winning plays when it mattered most against an opponent whose veterans Butler and Dwyane Wade came undone and were overcome in the final ticking minutes.
“Means a lot,” Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins said about the way in which his team won. “That’s what we need every night to win games. That’s when will comes in, when determination comes in and your fight.”
The Wolves’ 16-1 run that ended the second quarter got them back in the game. A late 8-0 run won it by turning a tied score with 1:19 left into a 99-91 advantage with 14 seconds remaining when Wade was ejected after he received two technical fouls for arguing a no-call after he drove hard to the basket.
“It’s bad losing at home, anytime,” said Wade, whose team has beaten Cleveland and San Antonio but also lost to the Wolves and Dallas. “When you lose against a team you shouldn’t lose to, it feels worse.”
The Wolves’ rebounding, particularly from its perimeter players, and defense allowed them to run and score themselves all the way back on a night when LaVine scored 24 points, Wiggins 23, Karl-Anthony Towns 16 with 12 rebounds and Ricky Rubio 11 points with 10 assists.
“One of the best of the year,” Wiggins said about his team’s defensive performance. “It was a bad first quarter, but we fixed it. We locked in, played together, shrunk the floor. Everybody was playing defense. Even Zach got a block at the end of the game.”
When it was over, Thibodeau walked away a winner in an arena where he became beloved by a city, even if he left it in 2015 after clashes with management and owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“I owe these people a lot,” Thibodeau said. “They gave me an opportunity. The city was great, the organization was great. In the end, it didn’t end great, but for most of the time it was great.”
Tuesday’s game ended great, too, even if Thibodeau didn’t show it.
“That’s just fuel to the fire,” Wiggins said. “That made all of us want to do it more, to do it for Coach. It’s common sense. He’s competitive, so obviously he’s going to want to beat his former team.”