Bulls blow 21-point first-half lead in loss to Tom Thibodeau's Timberwolves

Bulls blow 21-point first-half lead in loss to Tom Thibodeau's Timberwolves

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.”

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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.

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’


Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

Healthy in October for the first time in three seasons, Zach LaVine entered training camp as the $78 million man looking to justify one of the summer’s largest deals that many criticized.

And just a few days into camp, the spotlight homed in on him further when the Bulls lost Lauri Markkanen to an elbow injury.

LaVine responded to both challenges, putting together a preseason performance that not even the most optimistic expectations could have included.

In just 22.3 minutes he averaged 17.8 points on 52 percent shooting, made 44 percent of his triples and got to the free throw line a team best 4.8 times per game. In short, he looked much more like the potential franchise-building piece the Bulls believed they were acquiring 19 months ago.

“I’m my hardest critic, so there’s nothing on the outside that I haven’t told myself of where I want to be at. You want to tell the doubters on the outside I told you so, but it’s mostly coming from a place where I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for.’’

The fifth-year shooting guard was fluid, attacked in a variety of ways and looked like part of the offense, something that at times was non-existent during last year’s injury-riddled comeback season. Taking shots in rhythm, attacking the rim instead of settling for contested jumpers, running the floor. LaVine looked a lot like the player who shot 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep before the ACL injury in 2017.

“I think I found a good rhythm and then just keep that going into the regular season. I think last year still, I was trying to catch my rhythm with the games I played,” LaVine said Monday at the Advocate Center. “I’d play two good games and two bad games. I felt like that up and down was a little bit with the consistency of not playing. Now that I’m back fully I think that’s where I should be.”

The offensive uptick is a sight for sore eyes, especially with Markkanen on the mend. But where LaVine can quiet his harshest critics – including himself – is on the defensive end.

It’s just a five-game sample size, but LaVine’s individual defensive rating of 97.3 was better than the team’s overall 100.2 rating. A year ago, LaVine’s defensive rating was 113.9, the worst on the team, and worse than the team’s overall 110.4 mark. They’re baby steps, but steps nonetheless for a player who knows what the book says about him on that end of the floor.

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” he said. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

The preseason is one hurdle cleared, but they get much taller and difficult to get over when Thursday and the Philadelphia 76ers come around. No matter who starts in the frontcourt – Fred Hoiberg isn’t ready to announce Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. yet – or if the Bulls get good Jabari Parker instead of preseason Jabari Parker, all eyes will be on LaVine.

It’s the contract. It’s being the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butle trade. It’s how well he played before the injury and how dominant he looked in the preseason. He’s off to a good start and knows now is this time to build on it.

“There are a lot of things you want to reach and get better at every year, and I put a lot of work into this offseason,” he said. “I have a lot of things to prove and want to get better at, and yeah, I feel like it’s just motivation for yourself when you want to accomplish things.’’

Bulls sign local product Tyler Ulis to two-way deal

Bulls sign local product Tyler Ulis to two-way deal

The NBA preseason has finished and teams are finalizing their rosters before the beginning of the regular season.

For the Bulls, that meant claiming Tyler Ulis off waivers and signing him to a two-way contract.

The Athletic's Shams Charania first reported the move.

Ulis, a product of Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, was waived by the Warriors on Friday. He spent two years at Kentucky before getting drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns in 2016.

In two years with the Suns, Ulis made 58 starts and played in 132 games. He averaged just over 7 points per game in both seasons. Last season, Ulis also averaged 4.4 assists per game against 1.8 turnovers in 23.4 minutes per game.

The Suns waived Ulis after the season and the Warriors signed him for the preseason. He averaged 3 points and 1.5 assists per game in four preseason games with the Warriors.

The two-way contract means Ulis could be spending more time with the Windy City Bulls than at the United Center on game days, but backup point guard is a question mark for the Bulls. Cam Payne looks like he will get first crack at the role behind Kris Dunn with Denzel Valentine injured. Ryan Arcidiacono just made the team and could also figure into point guard minutes.