Tom Thibodeau’s first 25 games as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves have not gone according to plan. Instead of maturing into a playoff contender under their highly regarded new boss, the young Wolves look like the same talented but inexperienced side they were last year. Thibs cannot be deemed a failure so early on, but his team clearly has a long way to go.
Tuesday night’s game at the Chicago Bulls offered plenty of chances for reflection on Thibodeau’s performance as a head coach. Facing his old team for the first time, Thibs was welcomed to the United Center with a hearty ovation. That goodwill quickly gave way to the spirit of competition — Chicago took the first quarter 38-22 and looked set to hand Minnesota its ninth loss in 10 games.
Then everything turned around very seriously. Down 51-30 with 6:30 remaining in the second quarter, the Wolves closed the half on a 22-5 run to cut the deficit to a mere four points. They then tied it less than five minutes into the third, took their first lead shortly thereafter, and kept the Bulls at bay in the fourth quarter on their way to a 99-94 win. The comeback from 21 points down is the biggest in the NBA this season and the most impressive win for the 7-18 Wolves so far this season.
What do you say, Tom?
The Bulls were arguably just as responsible for the result as were the Tiimberwolves. Chicago followed their dominant first quarter by scoring fewer than 20 points in each of the last three, a stretch that can be blamed on much more than improved defense from Minnesota. The Bulls got increasingly frustrated, as well, culminating in the ejection of Dwyane Wade for arguing a non-call with 14 seconds left in regulation:
At the same time, the Wolves looked like a stereotypically never-say-die Thibodeau team. A squad that has struggled mightily in the third quarter of games all season kept the comeback going and managed to exert control of the contest in a tough environment. For that matter, they did it without a terrific offensive game from star center Karl-Anthony Towns (16 points on 6-of-21 FG). The damage came largely from wings Andrew Wiggins (23 points on 8-of-17 FG) and Zach LaVine (24 on 10-of-18 FG).
The Wolves are still 2-8 in their last 10 contests and owners of the second-worst record in the West, but this is the kind of win that can be built upon. The talent of these players has never been up for debate. Instead, they have to show to the league and themselves that they are capable of toughing out wins when the opponent does not lie down. It’s a work in progress, to be sure.
Meanwhile, the Bulls will hope that this latest loss is not the continuation of a worrisome trend. As noted by Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight.com, Chicago has a years-long history of beating good teams and then losing to some of the worst the league has to offer in their next outing. Tuesday’s disappointment came two games after a win over the San Antonio Spurs, so it would appear to follow that same general pattern. It’s hard to find an explanation for these losses across different coaches and core players, but the trend is too weird to ignore entirely.
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