MINNEAPOLIS—After being shorthanded throughout the season, the Bulls (38-31) have started to grow comfortable with their perpetually-undermanned status, displaying their experience in the familiar situation with a 104-97 win over the Timberwolves (24-44) Sunday night at the Target Center.
Without Joakim Noah on the trip to Minnesota and shooting guard Marco Belinelli a late scratch—not to mention the continued absences of Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton—the Bulls got big nights out of temporary starter Jimmy Butler, top reserve Taj Gibson and backup point guard Nate Robinson, as well as the forward duo of Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng to fend off their hosts.
In a start to a game that set NBA offense back decades, both teams combined to shoot 0-for-9 from the field before making a shot, something that the loss of Belinelli—the starting shooting guard didn’t play due to an abdominal strain, an issue he had been playing through, giving Jimmy Butler the start—could have contributed to, in the visitors’ case.
The Bulls fared worse than their hosts, as only Kirk Hinrich was able to muster up much point production early—the veteran point guard scored eight of the Bulls’ first 10 points—before Deng (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) got going, building upon his bounce-back game the previous evening.
[BULLS NOTES: Deng back in groove]
For the Timberwolves, point guard Ricky Rubio (15 points, eight assists) was the catalyst, but he alone couldn’t prevent the Bulls—who went to a small lineup with Noah remaining in Chicago with plantar fasciitis in his right foot—from building an early cushion.
With solid interior play from the likes of Boozer (19 points, 12 rebounds), fill-in starter Nazr Mohammed (10 rebounds) and Gibson (12 points, 11 rebounds) also boosting their effort, the Bulls held a 23-16 advantage after the opening period.
The outset of the second quarter was more of the same for the Bulls, as the visitors, propelled by Deng’s scoring—as well as timely contributions from Butler (20 points, nine rebounds), and reserve guards Daequan Cook and Robinson (22 points, 10 assists)—built a double-digit lead.
Robinson transitioned from set-up man to scorer initially focused on his playmaking duties, but then transitioned into scoring mode, thwarting the efforts of Minnesota reserves J.J, Barea and Dante Cunningham, both of who made their respective presences felt.
As the Bulls made more of a concerted effort to feed Boozer and Gibson, they rectified their once-horrid field-goal percentage to a respectable percentage and kept their turnovers down, while playing stout enough defense to continue to keep their out-of-sync hosts at bay.
Although rugged Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (15 points, eight rebounds) began to make more of an impact as halftime approached, the Bulls were able to take a 56-43 lead into the intermission, following a Derrick Williams (28 points) 3-pointer to beat the second-quarter buzzer.
After the break, the Bulls maintained their edge, as Butler and Boozer took more prominent roles in the offense.
But behind the trio of Rubio, Pekovic and Williams, Minnesota clawed back and reduced the deficit to single digits by the 5:18 mark of the third quarter, prompting a Bulls timeout to halt the proceedings.
It didn’t last long, however, as Mohammed’s rebounding, Robinson’s ability to create off the dribble, Boozer’s interior scoring and Butler’s improved offensive game all factored into the Bulls keeping a stranglehold on the direction of the contest.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls owned a 78-68 lead over their seemingly uninspired hosts.
[MORE: Butler excels in surprise start]
Although it certainly appeared as if the Bulls had the affair in hand through three quarters of play, the Timberwolves performed as if they hadn’t conceded anything.
A flurry at the outset of the fourth period again chipped into the visitors’ lead, making it a single-digit affair, 85-78, with 8:15 remaining in the contest, officially making it a game, as evidenced by the physical and verbal battle between Robinson and Barea, another diminutive scoring point guard.
Minnesota continued to make its push, cutting it to a five-point game as the Bulls’ offense grew stagnant, but a Robinson triple took the wind out of the hosts’ sails a bit in what had developed into a chippy affair—Barea was whistled for a technical foul—and the guests obtained some breathing room heading into the game’s stretch run.
A late Robinson triple gave the Bulls a 15-point lead, giving them a comfortable enough margin to cruise to the conclusion of the contest and if there was any doubt, a charge Butler took against a driving Williams with 1:44 to go eliminated it, giving the visitors back-to-back wins with two days of rest before hosting the streaking Miami Heat on Wednesday night at the United Center.