Longtime Minnesota coach Flip Saunders was fired Saturday and replaced by McHale, the vice president of basketball operations. The struggling Timberwolves, who reached the Western Conference finals last season, have lost seven of eight games and are currently not in position to make the playoffs.
In more than nine seasons with Minnesota, Saunders posted a 411-326 record. Last year, he became the eighth person in NBA history to have coached his first 700 games with the same organization.
“We talked (Saturday) morning, and it was very, very hard,” McHale said. “We’ve known each other for a long time, but our last 32 games we’re 12-20, and just not playing at a level that’s acceptable, energy-wise.
“Maybe a new voice will help. I’m going to do my best to get these guys competing at a higher level.”
McHale has been with Minnesota since 1993, serving in a variety of capacities. This is his first coaching opportunity.
The Timberwolves were outhustled and outplayed in Saunders’ last game—a 100-82 loss at Utah on Friday. Reigning MVP Kevin Garnett, who has played well during the team’s slide, even had a poor outing with a season-low 12 points and eight rebounds.
Minnesota is 25-26 one season after being 36-15 at this point.
“I wouldn’t use the word panic, but definitely time is running out, but you just have to keep going at it,” Minnesota forward Latrell Sprewell said. “You can’t quit. That’s the one thing you can’t do.”
Veteran guard Sam Cassell missed Friday’s game with a strained right hamstring and has played just eight games since Jan. 7, being out of action for a variety of reasons.
Chicago is hoping to end a six-game losing streak at the Target Center as it concludes a four-game road trip. The Bulls are seeking to salvage a split of the trip after a 105-92 loss at Houston on Wednesday.
Tyson Chandler finished with 12 points and 20 rebounds for Chicago, which shot just below 37 percent.
Chicago has struggled on defense after holding 26 straight opponents below 100 points earlier in the season. The Bulls have let their last five opponents score at least 100.
Coach Scott Skiles believes his defense—ranked first in opponents’ field-goal percentage at 41.6 percent—is still playing well despite the loss to the Rockets.
“I see 50 percent and 105 points and its easy to say we struggled defensively,” Skiles said. “Houston came out and executed and made plays, and that was the game.”
STANDINGS (through Feb. 11): Bulls - 3rd place, 5 GB, Central Division. Timberwolves - 2nd place, 11 1/2 GB, Northwest Division.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Bulls - F Luol Deng, F Othella Harrington, C Eddy Curry, G Chris Duhon, G Kirk Hinrich. Timberwolves - F Sprewell, F Wally Szczerbiak, C Garnett, G Anthony Carter, G Trenton Hassell.
TEAM LEADERS: Bulls - Hinrich, 15.7 ppg and 6.9 apg; Chandler, 9.3 rpg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 22.2 ppg, 13.9 rpg and 5.8 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Bulls, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: Dec. 11; Bulls, 99-88. At Chicago, rookie Ben Gordon scored 16 of his career-high 31 points in the fourth quarter to help the Bulls end a 10-game losing streak in the series. Gordon angered several Minnesota players by nailing a jumper in the closing seconds instead of dribbling out the clock.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Bulls - 8-13 on the road; Timberwolves - 14-12 at home.