The Chicago Bulls were the third seed in the Eastern Conference last season, winning 50 games and pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games before bowing out in the conference semifinals. They brought back many of the same players and hired an exciting new head coach in Fred Hoiberg. They started the season 4-2. Tonight, the young Minnesota Timberwolves beat them at home, in overtime, with dominating performances from Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
This is a rare, satisfying victory. The Wolves had won one of their last eleven meetings with the Bulls, and had been 3-7 in Chicago since 2004. Tonight, however, was not about the history. This game showed exactly what the pieces the Timberwolves have can be, and how high their future ceiling is.
The conversation starts with Andrew Wiggins, who came into this game off the back of several lackluster performances to start the year. His effort had been questioned, and his jump shot had been off. Wiggins reminded everyone just how good he can be, with his 31 points leading all scorers. His shot from distance finally dropped, as he hit his first four threes on the night. He had 22 points in the first half, and while the Wolves only led by one at the break, they had shown flashes of greatness. He can also get to the basket rather convincingly.
Wiggins spin move. So nice. pic.twitter.com/3QiKXP2afV— David Naylor (@ProfCedar) November 8, 2015
There was a run in the second quarter where coach Sam Mitchell did exactly what many viewers have been asking for: he gave Zach LaVine some time in the backcourt next to Ricky Rubio. LaVine had some of his best minutes of the year (an admittedly low benchmark, but still), and the glimmer of what LaVine could be playing his proper position. LaVine struggled in the second half when back at point guard, but there were positive signs.
Towns was a complete non-factor in the first half, picking up two quick fouls within the first three minutes and playing less than six minutes total in the first half. In the third quarter, he began to pick it up, strong moves inside bothering the Bulls' bigs and starting the momentum that continued to roll faster and faster into overtime, where Towns absolutely took over the game. He finished the night with 17 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 4 blocks. The Rubio-Towns pick-and-roll continues to be devastatingly effective, and Towns' vision and rebounding ability on defense is game-changing.
Towns swat. pic.twitter.com/PlgsnlDtEX— canishoopus (@canishoopus) November 8, 2015
The Wolves survived some bad stretches in the third and fourth quarters, which continue to be a worry. However, unlike the Portland game, the Wolves were never too far out of the game, and Towns and Wiggins (and Tayshaun Prince!) pulled them to a tie, and Wiggins missed a contested potential game-winning jumper at the buzzer. In overtime, the Bulls were held scoreless, and between Towns' five overtime rebounds and work on offense, the finish was comfortable.
There are still many problems with this team. However, on a night when Towns, Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Nemanja Bjelica lead the Wolves to an away win over a good Chicago team, it is much easier to see a time when wins like this will feel routine rather than extraordinary.
- Ricky Rubio continues to be the battery that powers this team. Rubio had 7 points, 8 rebound, 10 assists and 3 steals, and while he struggled with his shot (2-10 from the field), his intelligent distribution and individual defense continues to be absolutely vital. Rubio played most of the second half and overtime with gauze stuck in his nose to hold back blood from a non-contact nosebleed, which should not affect him long-term.
- This was Bjelica's best game of his short NBA career by far. He registered his first double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and is functionally the fifth starter during crunch time, replacing Kevin Garnett. He still needs to take open threes when they are presented to him on a silver platter, but this was the Euroleague MVP looking comfortable and making shots. Bjelica's adjustment to the NBA, while less eye-popping than Towns', is a huge key to the long-term future of the Wolves.
- Kevin Martin missed tonight's game with the same family matter that he has been dealing with since earlier this week, and provided an opportunity to see what the team might look like without him, which I wrote about earlier this week. The second unit still struggled mightily, but learning how to involve the rest of the lineup might be good for LaVine. (A related note: Tyus Jones was active for the first time tonight, but did not see the floor. Andre Miller also did not appear.)
- In the adventures of single game plus-minus, which is always at the very least amusing to look at if not the most accurate reflection of a game, the team leader was indeed accurate and not surprising: Andrew Wiggins at +20. The worst of the evening was Shabazz Muhammad's -17. Muhammad really has not found his groove this year, and continues to struggle with shooting (1-4 tonight, 41.4% on the year). Shabazz is a key to unlocking the offense of that second unit; if he can score consistently, it can reduce the reliance of that lineup on Martin.
- Your highlight of the night: Rubio to Wiggins. Savor it.
Why not. pic.twitter.com/6Uxv9D8ocd— Zach Bennett (@ZacharyBD) November 7, 2015