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Wolves at Bulls: Jimmy Butler’s Return to Chicago

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Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau formed a robust bond while together with the Bulls. Tonight, in one of the season’s most anticipated matchups, they look to topple their old team.    

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Wolves at Bulls
8:30 pm CST
ESPN

Tom Thibodeau, then Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls, drafted Jimmy Butler with the 30th pick of the 2011 NBA draft. Butler, a junior out of Marquette University, averaged just 2.5 points in 8.6 minutes over 42 games his rookie season under coach Thibs.

Spending some time around (and in) a Minnesota lake with ESPN’s Sam Alipour last November, Butler explained how he really felt about Thibodeau those six season’s ago: “I won’t lie: Couldn’t stand him. I never use the word ‘hate,’ but he was right there. I worked so hard, but he wouldn’t play me.” Sooner or later Thibs took notice of the gritty rookie, and over the next three seasons groomed him into one of the game's premier two-way players. During that time, Butler and Thibodeau became the synergized duo we’ve seen with the Wolves.

“Now, he’s my guy,” Butler finished.

NBA: New York Knicks at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Thibodeau was dismissed in 2015 after a messy divorce with Bulls top front office executives Gar Forman and John Paxon. The firing came immediately after a 50-32 season in which Chicago lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Wolves turned to Thibodeau’s championship pedigree to revive their troubled franchise. And in Thibs’ inaugural return to Chicago - an emotional game in mid-December of last season - the Wolves overcame a 21-point deficit to gift their coach the grudge match victory.

Then, after reports of a rift between Butler and Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg, the all-star found himself in trade talks for the first time of his career. Thibodeau jumped on the opportunity to reunite with his old alpha-dog; a perfect fit to help take his young team to the next level.

In a draft night trade, Wolves faithful said goodbye to fan favorite Zach LaVine and rookie Kris Dunn, but welcomed with open arms the most accomplished player they’d been able to root for in years.

With LaVine still sidelined to start the year in Chicago, Dunn — the now second year point guard — surprised his critics by combining suffocating defense with 13.7 points, 4.6 rebound and 6.4 assists per game through the first three months of the season. Starting to feel himself, Dunn sounded off about the poor treatment he felt he received while in Minnesota. In an interview with Sam Smith of NBA.com, Dunn explained, “Imagine your family coming to watch you play and you’re always sitting on the bench […] it was kind of embarrassing.” Unfortunately, Dunn will miss tonights matchup as he recovers from a concussion suffered in mid-January.

And since returning from injury, LaVine has excited Bulls fans with more than 15 points per game on .40/.38/.80 shooting splits. Yes, he’s still got it.

But the Bulls have experienced a roller coaster season. After starting 3-20, they rattled off seven consecutive wins and strung that into a 15-8 stretch from December 8th and January 20th. Since then, they’ve lost their most recent seven contests.

Meanwhile, Butler has carried the Wolves to fourth place in the West and has his sights set on home court advantage in a first round playoff series. Tonight, though, he has but one focus: revenge.

Butler has made his thoughts on the matchup clear, as he told Alipour at the beginning of the season, “it was either gonna me or the Fred Hoiberg route. And rightfully so, they took Fred. Good for them. I’ve got that game marked on my calendar: Feb. 9 baby, I’m back.”

It would also mean revenge for a whole host of this Wolves roster. Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks were together with Thibs and Butler those years in Chicago. Heck, even Jamal Crawford spent his first four seasons with the Bulls. But ultimately, it will be Butler's night to make his MVP case against the team that dared to let him go.

In one of the most consistently forshadowed matchups of the year, the Wolves will look to bounce back from Wednesday’s heartbreak in Cleveland and avoid handing a pick-me-up to yet another struggling Eastern Conference foe.

Expected Lineups

Wolves

Jeff Teague
Jimmy Butler
Andrew Wiggins
Taj Gibson
Karl-Anthony Towns

Bulls

Jerian Grant
Zach LaVine
Justin Holiday
Lauri Markkanen
Robin Lopez