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Game Preview #51: Wolves at Bulls

Anthony Edwards, Rudy Gobert, and Co. march into United Center Tuesday night, looking to start their five-game road trip with a win against the Chicago Bulls as the All-Star break approaches.

Photos by Michael Reaves / Getty Images

After a 111-90 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night to send Chris Finch and his staff to coach the Western Conference All-Stars, the Minnesota Timberwolves hit the road for five straight before the All-Star break. Their first opponent is a well-rested Chicago Bulls team that has played just once over the last four days.

Regardless of rested legs, the Timberwolves have a legitimate shot at a dominating win Tuesday night in Chicago.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (35-15) vs. Chicago Bulls (23-27)
  • When: Tuesday, February 6th at 7:00 PM CT
  • Where: United Center — Chicago, IL
  • TV: Bally Sports North
  • Radio: Wolves App, iHeart Radio
  • Line: Wolves -5 | Total: 216.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Jerseys: Wolves (Icon), Bulls (Association)

Injury Report

Updated as of Tuesday 2/6 at 6:15 PM CT

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right Achilles tendon rupture rehab)

Chicago

AVAILABLE:

  • Coby White (left ankle contusion)
  • Alex Caruso (left adductor strain)
  • Torry Craig (right plantar fascia sprain)
  • Dalen Terry (right ankle sprain)

OUT:

  • Zach LaVine (right ankle sprain)
  • Lonzo Ball (left knee surgery)
  • Patrick Williams (left midfoot bone edema)

What to Watch For

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The DeRozan Duties

With Zach LaVine sidelined since January 18th and now being ruled out for the remainder of the season as he will undergo right foot surgery, the 34-year-old DeMar DeRozan has stepped up as the head man in the Windy City. Despite a dip in averages through the 2023-24 campaign (22 points, on 46.5% from the floor and 33% from deep), DeRozan has always posed a serious threat to the Timberwolves, and if they don’t bring a concerted defensive effort against him, they could be in for a long night.

Over the last five games squaring off against Minnesota, the 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 36.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists on 57.4% (62/108) from the floor and 91.3% (53/58) from the charity stripe.

The Bulls are first in the league in long-mid-range attempts per game (12.8% of their shots). They thrive in the mid-range, and you can thank DeRozan for that, as 61% of his shots per game are from the mid-range, ranking him in the 100th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. He is a bulky forward who — obviously — lives in the mid-range. Players who fit that description have always given the Wolves trouble, especially this season.

Below are tracking stats on every Wolf who defended DeRozan last season via NBA.com:

  • Kyle Anderson (2 games): 16:18 mins | 77.3 partial poss. | 24 points | 8/17 FG | 6/6 FT
  • Jaden McDaniels (2 games): 4:49 mins | 28.3 partial poss. | 8 points | 2/5 FG | 4/4 FT
  • Anthony Edwards (2 games): 3:03 mins | 15.8 partial poss. | 10 points | 3/4 FG | 3/4 FT
  • Mike Conley (2 games): 2:18 mins | 12.2 partial poss. | 4 points | 1/3 FG | 2/2 FT
  • Nickeil Alexander-Walker (2 games): 2:10 mins | 12.4 partial poss. | 2 points | 0/3 FG | 2/2 FT
  • Shake Milton (3 games): 0:55 mins | 4.7 partial poss. | 0 points | 0/1 FG | 0/0 FT
  • Naz Reid (2 games): 0:46 mins | 6 partial poss. | 4 points | 2/4 FG | 0/0 FT
  • Jordan McLaughlin (1 game): 0:46 mins | 4.9 partial poss. | 8 points | 3/4 FG | 2/4 FT
  • Rudy Gobert (1 game): 0:34 mins | 3.2 partial poss. | 7 points | 3/4 FG | 1/1 FT

DeRozan is averaging 6.9 free throws per game this season (11th-most) and is connecting on 5.9 of those attempts (9th most). He is one of the more prolific contact drawers in the league and has been for a long time. Primarily, his use of pump fakes coupled with a stocky, 220-pound frame allows him to pull defenders into his web.

In the two games against Chicago last season, Anderson was the primary defender against DeMar and had the most success containing him. McDaniels was typically on LaVine, but since the Wolves won’t have to deal with Zach and Kyle being back on the bench, it seems likely that Jaden will get the DeRozan assignment off the jump. As always, staying out of foul trouble will be paramount for Slim. He has had relative success containing younger, smaller, and quicker combo guards this season (he helped hold Jalen Green to eight points on 3/15 from the floor on Sunday). But veteran forwards have a history of outsmarting and getting into his head, which almost always leads to early foul trouble.

If that happens, Slow-Mo’s defensive versatility will become much more critical. I’m sure he will get some opportunities to defend DeMar regardless, but keeping the Chicago forward at bay off the jump courtesy of Jaden would be incredibly refreshing to see.

DeRozan sets up his scoring opportunities in a multitude of ways. The two most common options we will probably see are either him bringing the ball up and going right into an isolation opportunity after a pick-and-roll or lurking in the corners and fanning off an off-ball screen — allowing himself to penetrate in a mismatch situation.

(Editor’s Note: if you are reading this on Apple News, please click here so you can view embedded videos crucial to the analysis and to enjoy the best overall reading experience.)

Additionally, DeMar is seventh in total clutch points this season (86). When it becomes winning time late in the fourth quarter, #11 is the one operating with the ball in his hands, as we can see in the clip above. Of course, building a big league and putting the game to bed before the fourth quarter would be the ideal situation for the Wolves, but if they can’t, keeping DeRozan in check down the stretch will be crucial in walking away victorious.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Controlling the Pace

The Bulls are dead last in pace this season (103.2). They like to set up in the half-court and go to work with a flurry of PnRs with Coby White, DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic while mixing in back cuts, primarily for Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu. This style of play should allow the Wolves to have a similar defensive performance to the one they had on Sunday.

Minnesota ranks first in points per 100 half-court plays on defense. Most of its league-leading defensive success this season has come in half-court situations. They typically find success when Rudy Gobert, McDaniels, and Co. sit down and lock in on defense for a slow-paced game.

On the other side of the coin, Chicago forces the eight-most turnovers per game (14.4) and the ninth-most points off those T/Os (17.3). While just 13.1% of the Bulls’ offensive sets start in transition (2nd worst), they have the power to turn their opponents over at a high rate and punish lazy transition defense with their slow and methodical play that emphasizes ball movement.

The bottom line: The Wolves — who average the third most turnovers per game — need to keep the ball on their side by not making lazy passes, which isn’t a new concept.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Prevail in the Paint

One way the Wolves can control their turnovers and ensure a productive offensive game is by prioritizing paint opportunities.

This season, the Bulls allow the most paint points per game (44.2) in the NBA. Their starting center, Vucevic, just isn’t a great PnR defender and lacks technique in those situations. Off the jump, Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch should prioritize getting Rudy Gobert involved early and often via empty-side PnRs with him and Mike Conley or Anthony Edwards, which we saw happen on Sunday at Target Center.

The Tower of Power has been incredibly consistent this season, especially lately, as he looks as if trying to prove a point to the coaches who didn't vote him into the 2024 All-Star game — averaging 17 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks on 77.4% from the floor over the last four games while being nominated for Western Conference Player of the Week.

The only way to successfully get Gobert involved offensively is the PnR game. We saw him fade out of the mix late against the Orlando Magic on Friday as the offense went ice cold. That simply can’t happen again on Tuesday in downtown Chicago. The Wolves have a tremendous opportunity to set the tone from the jump, with Rudy used as the hub. If they can get him involved, control the pace, and put up a smart fight against DeRozan, there should be no reason the Wolves don’t leave Chicago and head to Milwaukee with a win.