It worked out just the way Tom Thibodeau wanted it to — or perhaps not even in his wildest dreams could he imagine his return to Chicago could play out like this.
He watched his immature team take the Bulls’ best shot and seemingly lulled them to sleep after 20 minutes as the Bulls likely believed the 6-18 Minnesota Timberwolves would play to their youthful reputation.
Instead, it was the Bulls who played down to their reputation as a fourth-quarter outfit, as a team that can’t handle prosperity and as one that plays to the perceived level of its competition — losing to the worst after beating the best.
By the time Dwyane Wade clapped his hands in anger at official Ben Taylor when trying to draw a foul down four with less than 30 seconds remaining, earning two technical fouls and an ejection, the game was already decided.
The Bulls allowed Thibodeau his revenge in a 99-94 Wolves win Tuesday night at the United Center, a result that didn’t seem likely when the Bulls led by 20 most of the first half.
Thibodeau got his standing ovation, introduced after his team’s starting lineups, got hugs from former players and then lulled them to sleep a few minutes later before walking out victoriously a couple hours later.
“We just quit playing. It’s beyond me to have a team down like that and you let them back in,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You gotta have that killer mentality, step on them when they’re down. We let them back in it, and we’re in a dogfight the rest of the game.”
Thibodeau’s young pups — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine — all played up to expectations when the Wolves made their comeback, jumping over and running past the Bulls.
Towns survived a 6-for-21 night to score 16 points with 12 rebounds, all while protecting the rim without fouling. LaVine scored 24 with six rebounds and six assists, and Wiggins scored 23 with nine rebounds.
Jimmy Butler scored 27 but often tried to challenge Towns at the rim to unfortunate results, shooting 9-for-22 with six assists and nine rebounds. Robin Lopez scored 14, getting off early, and Taj Gibson scored 10.
Aside from that, production was scarce — as has been the case for most of the season.
“We let up. We have to keep building on leads,” Butler said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, guard, rebound, we won’t give up leads.”
In no mood to discuss going against Thibodeau, Butler said “Next question, please.”
[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]
Wade shot just 4-for-13 with 12 points and eight assists, including an errant triple with less than a minute remaining.
“It was frustration,” Wade said. “It’s bad when you lose at home. Of course when you lose to a team you shouldn’t lose to, it feels worse. We gotta find a way to fix it.”
Thibodeau said afterward the plan after taking the early hit was to just keep playing and to get the deficit under 10 before the half — perhaps a tacit admission that getting to the fourth quarter with the game in doubt made him a happy camper considering the Bulls’ ineptitude in the final 12 minutes.
“We just had to remain connected out there,” Thibodeau said. “We then played much better defense. In the second half, we were very good defensively.”
Of course, it highlighted the Bulls’ fourth-quarter woes — a belief many felt was exacerbated by teams refusing to guard Rajon Rondo on the perimeter and no Doug McDermott to spread the floor.
But Rondo was out with an ankle injury, and even with McDermott on the floor, the Bulls again had little movement and couldn’t get anything done in the fourth, scoring just 19.
“Did we miss Rondo? Sure we did,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a guy that would’ve kept that pace going through the course of the game. But it’s not an excuse to what happened tonight.”
They were beat to the glass, 49-42, and allowed 15 offensive rebounds while shooting 4-for-15 from 3-point range. Losing the battle on fast-break points (16-11) and second-chance points (20-15) made their slim margin for error that much slimmer.
“The two biggest things we talked about today was offensive rebounds ... and transition,” Hoiberg said. “They exposed us on both of those tonight.”
In a game where the Bulls comfortably led by 20 six minutes into the contest, making it look anything besides a wonderful homecoming for their former coach, they decided to make it more than interesting with a lifeless stretch to end the first half.
“We came out pretty amazing,” Wade said. “Then they had rhythm, and we were playing from behind. That’s the frustrating part. Sometimes you don’t come back from that. We never came back from that as a team.”
After shooting 68 percent with 14 assists and just two turnovers, holding a 55-36 lead with 4:14 left in the first half, they mentally headed to the locker room. The Timberwolves didn’t, going on a 16-1 run to end the second quarter and making it a four-point game.
Feeling the energy and new life, they kept coming at the Bulls for the rest of the night and ignored their third-quarter woes that often erased big leads. Towns found his game, and the young legs of Wiggins and LaVine kept getting out on the break when the Bulls penetrated too deep or couldn’t muster any semblance of organized offense.
When the night ended, Thibodeau motioned a wave to Hoiberg and perhaps to Chicago with a tribute of his own — one of quiet satisfaction.