Bulls

West edges East in NBA All-Star Game

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West edges East in NBA All-Star Game

ORLANDO If the Bulls played a game the way the Eastern Conference did Sunday night, Tom Thibodeau would lambaste his team for lack of preparedness and a lackluster defensive effort that led to them falling into a deep hole and having to play from behind. But this was the All-Star Game, so the perfectionist coach remained seated, rested his two All-Stars and oversaw a furious comeback that ended in a familiar sight for NBA fans: LeBron James coming up short in the clutch, leading to a 152-149 West win.

Derrick Rose (14 points) got an early fast-break finish off a dazzling James assist, but overall, the Bulls point guard left the spectacular plays to the likes of Miamis James (36 points). For the West, Kobe Bryant (27 points) scored early and often, but the aerial display put on by Oklahoma Citys Kevin Durant (36 points) and Blake Griffin (22 points) of the Clippers was what wowed the Orlando crowd as the Western Conference jumped out to a double-digit advantage in the opening stanza.

Thibodeau wasted no time in inserting the Bulls other All-Star, Luol Deng, who entered the contest at the 5:51 mark of the period and shortly thereafter dropped off an assist to Chicago native Dwyane Wade (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) of the rival Heat. Rose got his first break with 1:40 remaining in the first quarter, after which the West led, 39-28.

Thibodeau sat Deng at the outset of the second quarter, but received wing firepower in the form of Philadelphias Andre Iguodala, an Illinois native, whose all-around game and artistry in the air created a buzz in the audience. However, behind reserve Russell Westbrook (21 points) of the Thunder, the West maintained its comfortable winning margin and stayed in control of the high-scoring affair, led by the playmaking of Chris Paul (12 assists) of the Clippers.

Thibodeau shrewdly kept his stars on the bench through the end of the first half, not that either could have done much to make up the Easts massive deficit, though guards Wade and New Jerseys Deron Williams (22 points) did their best to keep their team in contention. At the intermission, the Bulls head coachs squad trailed, 88-69, as Durants scoring output carried the West.

After the break, Rose scored consecutive buckets a putback of an offensive rebound and a pull-up jumper as part of an East run that made it a more competitive game, best illustrated by Wades hard foul on Bryant that caused the Lakers superstar, who passed Michael Jordan to become the leading scorer in All-Star history in the third quarter, to bleed. Rose later knocked down consecutive three-pointers, helping make it a single-digit game, by virtue of an 18-6 run.

Thibodeau, who had left his starters in the game to spur the run, eventually rested Rose, who made his mark on the game after being somewhat passive in his first two All-Star appearances, with just over four minutes to go in the period. Meanwhile, the West recovered from the onslaught and kept a tenuous hold on the lead after withstanding its counterparts spurt and headed into the final frame holding a 124-112 lead.

The Easts reserves couldnt keep up the starters momentum and allowed the West, buoyed by Durant and three-point contest winner Kevin Love (17 points) of the Timberwolves, to extend their lead. But behind Williams, Iguodala and the reinserted James, the East again made a push to take some air out of their opponents cushion, as the game entered its stretch run.

With the East again cutting the deficit to single digits, eventual game MVP Durant and James staged an exciting duel that captivated fans and their peers alike, hitting contested long-distance from nearly impossible angles. A one-possession game with just over two minutes left, a Williams steal and layup cut it to 148-147 with under two minutes remaining, but with a chance to take the lead, Wade flubbed a fast-break opportunity.

A hectic sequence led to a Griffin follow-up dunk with 37 seconds on the clock, which was followed by Wade getting fouled and making two free throws to make it 150-149 with 22.8 seconds left. Bryant, regarded as the most clutch player in the league, was fouled on the next possession, but surprisingly missed the second of two foul shots, giving the East a chance to win or tie the game with 16.3 seconds to go.

After an East timeout, James, scrutinized in past postseasons for his seeming unwillingness to take the last shot, twice passed the ball once to Williams and after an East offensive rebound, turned it over and Griffin was eventually fouled with 1.1 seconds remaining. After the woeful free-throw shooter split a pair from the charity stripe, Wade took a desperation double-pump shot from the corner that was off the mark.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”