Heading into their impending six-game road trip, the Bulls (22-22) got a taste of what to expect when facing their Western Conference counterparts Monday night, as they fell to the Timberwolves (22-22), 95-86, at the United Center.
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Capitalizing on the absence of Joakim Noah—the Bulls’ All-Star center left the arena shortly before it was time to take the floor, going home because of an unspecified illness—Minnesota All-Star power forward Kevin Love (31 points, eight rebounds) went to work in the early going, with athletic swingman Corey Brewer also making his presence felt, particularly in transition. Not helping the Bulls’ cause were their ball-security issues and errant shooting, which allowed the Timberwolves to jump out to a double-digit first-quarter lead, highlighting how much the hosts missed their center’s uncanny playmaking ability.
But the Bulls fought back and behind the play of Taj Gibson (10 points, 10 rebounds), starting in place of Noah, and the previously slumping Jimmy Butler (16 points, eight rebounds), narrowed the gap, ending the opening period facing a 23-20 deficit, as D.J. Augustin (19 points, six assists) got it going as the frame went on.
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History repeated itself at the outset of the second quarter, with Minnesota reeling off seven consecutive points, prompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to temporarily halt the proceedings in an effort to refocus his squad. Although the Timberwolves didn’t have the services of Nikola Pekovic—the brawny center left the contest midway through the previous period with a strained right Achilles’—backup big man Ronny Turiaf was both active, while fellow reserve Chase Budinger was also effective for the visitors, by way of his outside shooting.
The play of the forward tandem of Duke products Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer (20 points, 14 rebounds, five assists)—the latter got off to a horrific start to the game shooting the ball—helped the Bulls get into striking distance, but they never seriously challenged their guests and at the intermission, they trailed, 54-46.
After the break, crafty floor general Ricky Rubio became the Timberwolves’ focal point, using his clever game and passing skills to spark Minnesota. Boozer’s second-quarter productivity carried over to the third period, but the Bulls were unable to make any significant headway and compounding matters was Gibson picking up his third and fourth fouls in short succession midway through the frame.
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Gradually, however, the Bulls sliced into the deficit, courtesy of their stifling defense, but they couldn’t quite get over the hump and heading into the final stanza, they remained behind, 72-65.
The Bulls’ shooting woes and turnover struggles plagued them in the fourth quarter, as Minnesota was able to maintain a double-digit advantage. The game headed into its stretch run with the Timberwolves’ comfortable cushion intact, despite the Bulls’ best efforts, which included applying full-court pressure on the defensive end.
An Augustin three-pointer with 1:29 remaining in the contest cut it to a five-point affair, 84-79, but partly due to shooting 36.6 percent from the field for the evening, they would get no closer in their last home game for two weeks.