The Timberwolves’ 117-89 victory Sunday didn’t deliver the same comeback drama as their December victory at Chicago, but it nonetheless kept coach Tom Thibodeau perfect against the Bulls team he once coached.
Two months ago, the Wolves trailed 26-6, yet still won at United Center, which Thibodeau called home for five seasons.
Sunday, the Bulls came to Target Center with four players injured or ill, including All-Star Jimmy Butler and superstar Dwyane Wade. It was the last game of a six-game trip that started 12 days before — although it seemed like “35 days ago,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
The Wolves welcomed them by leading 31-12 early and 115-85 late, with Thibodeau keeping starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio on the floor until three minutes or fewer remained in a blowout decision. Yet afterward, he said beating the Bulls after a bitter parting in May 2015 doesn’t mean more to him than defeating any other NBA team.
“No,” Thibodeau said, chuckling when asked about it. “For me, I’ve been around and there are lot of those teams. It’s always hard when you’ve been through things with people. I really root for that team, especially those guys I’ve coached before, and I want them to do well, except when we play against them.
“It’s a great basketball city. It’s a great organization. I had five great years there. I pull for them when they’re not playing us.”
But Taj Gibson played all five seasons when Thibodeau coached in Chicago, and he knows better. He heard Thibodeau bark commands toward the Target Center rafters during the season’s first announced sellout — 19,356, including a fair number of Bulls fans — from opening tip to final buzzer. He also saw Towns, Wiggins and Rubio on the floor long after Hoiberg removed four of his five starters from the game for all or most of the fourth quarter.
“Without a doubt; I know him well,” Gibson said when asked if beating the Bulls means more to his former coach. “When most people think it’s not a big deal, it’s a big deal to him. You see he kept coaching the whole game. He even left some of the [starters] in late. I could see his hand shaking from all the way on our end. I knew he really wanted to win that game.
“Nothing is going to change. He’s going to be the same guy every day.”
This time, the Wolves took lessons learned from blowing double-digit leads throughout the season and from playing undermanned teams, such as New Orleans in Friday’s lopsided home loss, and just kept going, all the way to the season’s second-largest margin of victory.
Young stars Towns and Wiggins (a game-high 27 points) turned playmakers when the Bulls sent multiple defenders at each. The two combined for eight assists — four each — and 49 points, too, as the Wolves built a big lead but this time kept it.
Trailing by 17 at halftime, Chicago drew no closer than 13 late in the third quarter. The Wolves answered by scoring nine of the next 10 points to regain a 21-point lead, and that was that.
After the final buzzer, Thibodeau sought out Butler at center court for a hug and also greeted Bulls guard Doug McDermott before he marched out through the tunnel.
“He has a good way of hiding stuff, hiding that kind of emotion,” Wiggins said when asked if his coach has extra inspiration to beat the Bulls. “I’m sure he does. I would if I was him.”