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Thibodeau's Timberwolves give a glimpse into the future in win over Bulls

Thibodeau's Timberwolves give a glimpse into the future in win over Bulls

The Timberwolves were reeling again, and another fourth-quarter disappointment felt inevitable.

After clawing their way back from a 21-point first-half deficit, Tom Thibodeau’s group had led for all but a few possessions of the final period. But, with the Bulls trailing by four, Jimmy Butler recorded steals on consecutive possessions and turned both takeaways into baskets of his own that tied the game at 91 with 94 seconds to play.

Here were the youthful Timberwolves, on the road, deploying a lineup with an average age of 23 years old, in desperate search of a win to improve on their NBA-worst 6-18 record.

To make matters worse, the ongoing collapse was a situation Minnesota unfortunately had found itself in before. Of those 18 losses, the Timberwolves had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter in 10 of them. Their net rating in the final two periods was among the worst in the league, and two days earlier they watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate in a crushing loss to the Golden State Warriors.

But there was a different vibe about these Timberwolves on Tuesday night. Perhaps it was the competition – the Bulls have seven losses to teams currently at or below .500 – or the fact that the Timberwolves wanted badly to win for Thibodeau in his return to Chicago. Whatever the reason, the game-deciding sequence that followed shed light on the myriad talent Thibodeu and the Timberwolves possess, and just how good the Timberwolves can be in the not-so-distant future.

After Butler’s pull-up jumper at the free-throw line, Thibodeau opted against calling timeout despite his young group having turned the ball over on consecutive possessions. The decision paid off, as Andrew Wiggins buried a 22-footer from the left wing over Butler’t outstretched hand. On the other end, Dwyane Wade isolated Zach LaVine on the right wing and attempted a step-back 3-pointer that would have given the Bulls the lead.

Wade missed long, and more importantly was late getting back in transition. LaVine, the bouncy 21-year-old who had already played 42 minutes, leaked down court after contesting Wade’s triple and caught a long Ricky Rubio pass in stride for a layup, pushing the Wolves’ lead back to four with 52 seconds remaining.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns then corralled his 12th rebound off a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt, and LaVine blocked a Wade layup the next trip down to seal the eventual 99-94 victory, the largest comeback in the NBA this season. The standings Wednesday morning will show the Timberwolves a mere half-game ahead of the Mavericks in the cellar of the Western Conference. But the improbable win highlighted exactly why the future in Minnesota is as bright as any team in the league.

The three-headed monster of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine – each 21 years old – combined for 63 of the Timberwolves’ points in the win. LaVine led the comeback charge with 16 of his 24 points coming in the second and third quarters. Wiggins defended Butler most of the night, and still managed 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting, and grabbed nine rebounds, his highest total in nearly a month. Towns struggled from the field, going just 6-for-21, but impacted the game with three blocks and a steal in the third quarter, when Minnesota took its first lead of the game. Towns’ two free throws that pushed the lead to four before Butler’s late fourth-quarter takeover proved crucial.

“I love our young guys. They’re learning, they’re growing, but what they’re doing for guys their age is pretty remarkable,” Thibodeau said. "And they love to be in the gym. I know we’ll improve. We’re not there yet, but I know that we’ll get there.”

Minnesota’s window is just opening. As current holders of the NBA’s longest playoff drought – 12 years – it entered a full rebuild when it dealt Kevin Love to the Cavaliers three summers ago. That deal netted them Wiggins, and a year later the lottery balls fell in its favor and allowed them to draft Towns. Those two became the first teammates to win back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards since 1974. In the same offseason they traded for Wiggins, the Wolves selected LaVine with the 13th pick, and the shooting guard has exploded in his third year. He's a legitimate candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, as his points per game have increased more than six points.

Though their record won’t show it, the Timberwolves have made enormous strides with their three young stars, which Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg defined as “franchise-type players.” Towns, LaVine and Wiggins are three of four 21-year-olds averaging at least 20 points per game (New York’s Kristaps Porzingis is the other). And the Timberwolves are one of three teams who have had three different players score 37 or more points in a game this year. The other two? Golden State (Curry, Thompson, Durant) and Cleveland (James, Love, Irving). Good company, to say the least.

Expectations were sky-high when Thibodeau became the head coach and president of basketball operations this past summer. The Timberwolves had won just 29 games the previous season, but finished with wins in four of their last five, including an overtime win at Golden State against the 69-8 Warriors. The prevailing thought was Thibodeau, the best defensive mind in the game, could improve that side of the ball for the Timberwolves to match their blooming offense, which finished 12th in efficiency.

But Thibodeau said Tuesday he never listened to outside projections. He understood when he took the job that his main initiative in Year 1 was to progress his young talent – the Timberwolves used eight players on Tuesday, none older than 28 years old – and that growing pains he didn't face in Chicago would be part of the equation.

“I tell our players all the time: ‘Don’t get lost in what other people are saying. The only thing that matters is what we’re saying. Make sure we’re not skipping over any steps. Put everything you have into each and every day. Do the right things.’”

Tuesday night could very well be a foundation win for the franchise. While the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year, and likely won’t flirt with .500, it’s easy to see the progression that Thibodeau’s group is making.

The defense is still a major work in progress – Wiggins and LaVine joked in the locker room after the game that their off-ball defense still needs plenty of work – as they rank second-to-last in efficiency, an almost-unthinkable number considering what Thibodeau did in his time with the Bulls.

But the offense is humming - ranked 10th in the NBA - and the Wolves are getting positive contributions from other young talent. Ricky Rubio has been inconsistent, but on Tuesday he finished with 10 assists and just two turnovers in 34 minutes. Overlooked center Gorgui Dieng had 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds to help Minnesota win the battle of the boards by seven (49 to 42). All the while rookie Kris Dunn, who the Bulls were reportedly enamored with before June's draft, is coming along in his first season, averaging 7.7 points and 3.2 assists in his last six games.

Towns is on pace to become the third player ever to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, a 3-pointer and a block per game (Shawn Marion and DeMarcus Cousins are the others). Wiggins has received criticism for simply being a scorer, but his nine rebounds and three assists were crucial in Tuesday’s victory. And LaVine is no longer an under-the-radar player in Minneosta, having scored 20 or more in four of the last five games. The least heralded of the three, he’s arguably been Minnesota’s top player this year.

There will be plenty of growing pains moving forward – the Bulls shot 73 percent in the first quarter, and the Wolves’ offense disappeared for much of the fourth quarter when they could have put the Bulls away – and the Timberwolves are still a few years away from truly competing. But with their core in tact and, as Thibodeau alluded to, having the right mindset on what it takes to win, the future looks bright in Minnesota behind a trio of rising stars still young enough to be competing collegiately.

Each had a significant contribution on Tuesday in a come-from-behind road victory over a team competing for a spot among the East’s best. Now the young Wolves’ initiative will be building on such a win, learning from the positives on what it takes to compete on a nightly basis, and growing as a unit. And they’ll do so under a head coach who, as the Bulls learned for five seasons, won’t be satisfied with a single win in December.

“We have to build on it. It can’t be a one-game thing,” Thibodeau said. “We have to keep doing it. We have to do it day after day. Hopefully we can learn from that and continue to build.”

If Tuesday night was any indication, they will.

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 100 made dunks last season. But that would have been far too long of a video to make, so instead we condensed it down to their six best dunks of the season.

Which one was your favorite?

LaVine slams it home on the blocks leader (Mar. 5)

LaVine had a mini dunk contest in Indiana, but none more impressive than his dunk over Myles Turner. Robin Lopez set a high screen for LaVine, who attacked the rim instantly. LaVine got a step on Turner, who wound up leading the NBA in blocks per game, and flushed home a righty slam to tie the game early in the third quarter. LaVine finished with 27 points in the loss.

Lauri goes lefty on the Pistons (Mar. 8)

What’s more impressive than a 7-footer taking Blake Griffin off the dribble with his off-hand? That same 7-footer finishing a lefty dunk over Andre Drummond. That’s what Markkanen did early in this early March contest. Griffin got the best of Markkanen and the Bulls by the end of the night, but Markkanen started it out with a bang.

Arci saves, Otto oops, LaVine finishes (Mar. 6)

Sometimes the dunker gets the easy part. Ryan Arcidiacono had an incredible save to keep the ball in bounds in the Bulls backcourt. He tipped it right to Otto Porter who turned, took one dribble, and fed a perfect alley-oop to a streaking LaVine, who finished with an impressive one-handed slam. That it came during a nationally televised game (against Jimmy Butler) in a game the Bulls won made it all the more sweet. It was the Bulls’ best team play of the year.

Lauri’s R-rated drive past PG13 (Dec. 7)

Part of what makes Markkanen such an impressive talent is his versatility for a 7-footer. That was on full display against the Thunder in his third game back from his elbow injury. Markkanen set a screen for Zach LaVine and popped out to the 3-point line, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George switching on to him. Markkanen caught George just the slightest bit out of position and took advantage, driving past him and in for a dunk. This one was special because 23 game minutes later, Markkanen won the game with a spinning layup over George and Steven Adams.

LaVine goes 360 for 2 on the Cavs (Nov. 10)

We take Zach LaVine for granted sometimes. There’s nothing normal about a human being so casual jumping into the air, doing a full spin, and dunking a ball through a hoop 10 feet off the ground. But LaVine did just that early in the first quarter against the Cavs. He was still rising as he threw it down for his first two points of the game. LaVine finished with 24 points on just 9 of 22 shooting, but also added eight rebounds and five assists. Don’t let the ease of the dunk fool you: This was his best of the season.

Lauri baptizes Nikola Vucevic (Dec. 21)

You knew we saved the best for last. Markkanen went way up the ladder for his best dunk of the year, slamming one home on Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Making the slam all the more impressive was that the shot clock was winding down – Markkanen caught the ball at the logo with 4.2 seconds left on the shot clock – but he didn’t settle, instead heading straight to the rim where he met Vucevic for the slam. It was part of a monster night for Markkanen facing a defense that finished the season 8th in efficiency. He scored 32 points - at the time a season-high – on 12 of 20 shooting. The technical foul was worth it.

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Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.