A group of reporters surrounded Andrew Wiggins late Tuesday night, wanting to ask the 21-year-old wing how the young Timberwolves were able to secure an improbable 99-94 road victory over the Bulls. Minnesota had trailed by 21 points midway through the second quarter against an experienced Bulls team that had won two straight at home.
Wiggins answered tactfully, responding that the Timberwolves had stuck together and fought through the early deficit. The swift defense they had played in the second half came down to will and determination, he answered.
Wiggins was then asked if Tuesday’s victory meant something more, given that head coach Tom Thibodeau was back at the United Center for the first time since being fired by the Bulls in 2014.
At the same time Zach LaVine was getting dressed at his neighboring locker.
“Hell yeah,” LaVine mumbled, though loud enough for reporters to hear.
Wiggins laughed before echoing the same sentiments, that Tuesday’s win was much more than a single tally in the win column.
“Definitely,” Wiggins said. “That’s just fuel to the fire. That made all us want it more. We wanted to do it for coach.”
It was a stark difference from the mood just outside the Timberwolves locker room, where Thibodeau had just finished speaking with reporters. During that morning’s shootaround, and even in his availaiby with reporters 90 minutes before tipoff, Thibodeau took the high road when asked about his time in Chicago, his relationship with the front office, and the manner in which he was fired.
Thibodeau’s trademark stone-faced manner remained as he exited the locker room to meet with reporters. Always in true character, Thibodeau deflected any notion that the victory meant any more to win than any other. In his mind, a 6-18 team – worst in the NBA entering the night – needed any sort of victory, no matter how it came or which team it came against.
“I think the winning part is important for us, just to build confidence,” Thibodeau said. “And so to understand what goes into winning, how hard it is to win. You can’t take any plays off, you have to play tough.”
Thibodeau said he hadn’t marked Dec. 13 on his calendar when the league schedule came out this summer. Always the perfectionist, he admitted instead that he was looking for back-to-backs, or situations where the Timberwolves would play four games in five nights.
The only formal response from the Bulls came during the starting lineups, when PA announcer Tommy Edwards read that “the Chicago Bulls welcome back Tom Thibodeau.” The announcement elicited considerable cheers from the United Center crowd of 21,146. The cheers were considerably louder than any returning player, which has included Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.
Thibodeau gave a few waves to the crowd before going right back to the clipboard in his hand. Once the game began it was business as usual. Still, his players understood the magnitude of the game, even if their coach didn’t let on to it meaning more.
That the Timberwolves picked up the victory with Thibodeau-style suffocating defense - the Bulls shot just 34 percent after the first quarter - only made the victory that much sweeter for the team.
“It’s just another win on his belt, but it obviously means more coming back here,” LaVine said. “He coached here for five years. He’s a big known name around here. He had a great standing ovation. I’m happy they gave him a warm welcome back, and we wanted to win this game for him.”
Thibodeau expanded further on his love for the Chicago and the Bulls organization, answering each prying question with a politically correct, yet still heartfelt and genuine response.
“It’s great,” he said of the response from the crowd. “It’s a great organization. They have great history, tradition, and as I mentioned, I owe these people a lot. They gave me an opportunity. The city has been great, the organization has been great, and in the end it didn’t work out but for the most part, the way (Bulls owner) Jerry (Reinsdorf) treated me for 99 percent of it was unbelievable.
“It’s great to come back because when I think back of the experience I had here, it wasn’t just the games. It was the people. I was very fortunate to be with that group so I apprecaited it. It’s a great city, it’s a great sports town. I loved my time here and so anytime I do come back I look forward to it.”