In a tune-up for the regular season, the Bulls (3-2) showed that theyre making progress as the real thing approaches, easily defeating the Timberwolves (3-2), 92-81, Friday night at the United Center, avenging last weeks loss in Minneapolis.
Playing in the fashion familiar to fans who saw them go 18-9 without Derrick Rose a year ago, the Bulls balanced play on both ends ensured they took another step toward being one of the leagues sleeper teams in the upcoming campaign.
Perhaps they were still smarting from last Saturdays defeat in Minneapolis, but the Bulls came out playing inspired basketball. With Rip Hamilton (15 points, five rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) as the offensive focal points, and their usual stout defense leading the way, a 12-0 run early in the opening period set the tone for the hosts.
The visitors, sparked by fill-in starter Dante Cunningham All-Star Kevin Love was again sidelined against the Bulls; this time, as opposed to the two teams first meeting, its with a long-term injury, a broken right hand that will keep him out for six to eight weeks eventually got things going and trimmed the deficit as the frame waned on. Still, the Bulls, who were also aided by the unselfishness of Kirk Hinrich (eight assists) and scoring contributions of All-Star Luol Deng (14 points), claimed a 23-17 advantage at the conclusion of one quarter.
Backup center Nazr Mohammeds strong preseason play continued, helping the Bulls push their lead back to double digits, with Taj Gibson (12 points, 11 rebounds), second-year swingman Jimmy Butler and budding fan favorite Nate Robinson also helped the squads cause. Playing pressure defense, the Bulls got out into transition and converted fast-break opportunities, except when facing Minnesotas set defense, against which they used their size to be a factor on the offensive glass.
While Timberwolves shooting guard Brandon Roy ensured the gap didnt grow too large, Boozers scoring helped the Bulls keep their distance from their guests. At the intermission, the home team led, 50-35.
After the break, Boozer, Hamilton and Deng continued to be effective as scorers, but Hinrich also got into the act and despite battling first-half foul trouble, Joakim Noah made his presence felt on the boards. Minnesotas Andrei Kirkilenko like the aforementioned Roy, his fellow former All-Star, back in the NBA after a hiatus; Roy temporarily retired due to knee issues, while Kirilenko played professionally in his native Russia got it going for the visitors, though it wasnt enough to chip into the hosts comfortable winning margin.
Offensive execution remained at a high level for the Bulls and as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau filtered in his second-unit players, the selflessness of the team continued to be a strong suit, something thats a positive omen for a regular season in which the squads superstar and only player truly capable of creating a shot for himself or his teammates at will is on the shelf. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were ahead, 70-59.
Led by Gibsons inside play, the playmaking of Robinson, Mohammeds post presence and Deng providing stability, the Bulls again maintained their steady double-digit advantage at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Balanced play, solid overall defense and a strong rebounding effort on both ends of the floor, hallmarks throughout the game, persisted for the home team and seemingly wore down the visitors, though Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman inserted his reserves for the games stretch run, as opposed to his counterpart Thibodeau.
The starters minus Noah, as Thibodeau elected to leave Gibson, the lone holdover reserve from last season, in the contest at center began to salt the game away for the Bulls, as Boozers scoring and Gibsons interior presence were significant factors.
It wasn't perfect, as Thibodeau surely would agree with, but concerns about the sky falling with Rose out of the lineup continue to be allayed with every game.