One of the first things both Zach LaVine and Fred Hoiberg noticed when they walked into Target Center on Saturday morning was the banner honoring Flip Saunders hanging from the rafters on one end of the arena.
“I got a little emotional when I looked up there and saw that,” said Hoiberg, coach of the Chicago Bulls, before Saturday night’s 122-104 loss to the Timberwolves.
Hoiberg played two of his 10 seasons in the NBA with the Wolves. He shot 44.2 percent on three-pointers in the 2003-04 season, which ended with a loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. LaVine was a talented but raw player Saunders took in the 2014 draft.
“I’m glad they put his name up there,” LaVine said. “[He is] a big part of Minnesota’s community, and he’s still a big part of what’s going on here. I think that was very cool.”
Hoiberg, whose NBA playing career ended with a diagnosed aortic aneurysm, said the 2003-04 season was the most fun he ever had playing basketball. And he credits Saunders, who blended superstars Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell into a winning, cohesive unit.
“Flip meant so much to us,” Hoiberg said. “So many great memories. I still think we win a championship if Cassell doesn’t tear that muscle in his hip against Sacramento [in the conference semifinals]. Such great memories of this place, and Flip is the biggest part of that because of the way he took control of that team.”
LaVine has already gotten over the hype surrounding playing his former team; his 35 points led the Bulls to a victory over the Wolves in Chicago Feb. 9.
But this was his first game at Target Center. And he comes home appreciative of what he had here, and beginning to peak with the Bulls.
“It will be good,” he said before scoring 21 points Saturday night. “We already got the main thing out of the way, playing against your old team. I know the fans appreciate me, and I appreciate them. This is where I got started. This is the beginning of a lot of things.”
LaVine, then on the mend from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that ended his 2016-17 season, and Kris Dunn were sent to the Bulls in the deal that brought Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. The Bulls used the first-round pick acquired in that trade to draft Lauri Markkanen. But because of injuries — LaVine was still rehabbing when the season started and Dunn missed some games with a concussion — the three have not played together much this season. But they will down the stretch.
LaVine, who credited the Bulls for forcing him to be patient in his recovery — he said he felt good enough to return a month before he actually did — is hitting a peak. He has become the team’s go-to guy at clutch time.
“He is still getting back his timing and everything else,” Hoiberg said. “But it’s coming, and you can see it. He has evolved into a finisher, and he took that role with confidence.”
Dunn missed the Feb. 9 game vs. the Wolves because of the NBA’s concussion protocol. After a rookie season with Minnesota where minutes were scarce, the No. 5 pick in the 2016 draft admitted his confidence had ebbed.
But that has changed.
“I didn’t feel I learned a lot about the NBA game,” Dunn said. “But getting minutes helped me with my confidence, gave me a little more swag. I have good teammates, and I think the system fits better for me.”