February 22, 2024

Bulls’ comeback win against Timberwolves was great, but what comes next?

If this was the last night of the Chicago Bulls as we know them, they treated their home fans to one final show. It was a turbulent performance, the kind by which this Bulls era has been defined. A first half filled with frustration. A second half that encapsulated so much of the potential within a roster that never consistently surfaced.

A stubborn 129-123 overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves inside the United Center on Tuesday, the Bulls’ final game before the NBA’s trading deadline, served as the bait.

The Bulls battled back from a 23-point, third-quarter deficit against a Western Conference heavyweight that fields two All-Stars in Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. They improved to a league-best 5-2 in overtime without guard Zach LaVine, who is lost for the season with a foot injury, without forward Patrick Williams, whose left foot is in a protective boot and with forward Torrey Craig playing in just his second game after a 22-game absence.

“It shows we have resiliency,” Coby White said. “It’s a hard way to live, honestly.”

Three nights earlier against the Sacramento Kings, the Bulls faced a 30-point deficit before making it a nailbiter and losing late. DeMar DeRozan said in October that the identity of this season’s squad needed to be its resilience. Habitually having to storm back isn’t what he had in mind.

For as fun as Tuesday’s second-half comeback was for a home crowd thirsty for reasons to cheer, it spoke more to the Bulls’ continued inconsistency.

Despite being undermanned and digging themselves into a sizable deficit for the second straight game, the Bulls dominated the second half and overtime, outscoring the Timberwolves 82-54 over the final 29 minutes. They did it collectively, another one of those contests in which the Bulls, albeit erratically, played hard, smart and together at both ends.

White and DeRozan scored 33 points apiece to nearly offset the sensational shot-making of Edwards (game-high 38 points) and Towns (33 points). Bulls coach Billy Donovan altered his starting lineup, matching up with Towns and Rudy Gobert by inserting Andre Drummond alongside Nikola Vučević. Drummond finished with 16 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. Vučević had 24 points, six rebounds and four blocks.

Maybe before, many moons ago, fans would have taken a defiant victory over the scrappy Wolves as an encouraging sign. Perhaps a reason to stay the course and see this season out. But after a three-year run, and another season-ending injury to a star, there’s nothing more the Bulls can do to justify more continuity. Now it’s time the Bulls unveil some semblance of Plan B.

Inside the Bulls’ locker room, the looming deadline was said to be an afterthought. As White said and the Bulls showed, they’re still chasing wins.

“We don’t pay attention to that,” White said. “We’re worried about the guys in this locker room. We believe in the guys in this locker room. We’re with the guys in this locker room. We’re going to back each other. We’re going to believe in each other. We’re going to take advantage of every opportunity we get.”

Little is expected from the Bulls ahead of Thursday’s deadline. Three of Chicago’s best players, LaVine, Williams and Lonzo Ball, are injured. The Bulls don’t own a trove of draft picks. And there’s not a line of teams rushing to trade for DeRozan and Vučević.

Alex Caruso, Jevon Carter and Drummond are the only three Bulls players who make sense for Chicago to shop. Caruso figures to command the biggest return among the team’s realistic targets. Drummond has proudly maintained he’s still better than a backup but might be more comfortable in a reserve role on a championship roster rather than absorbing Vooch’s breather minutes. Carter continues to be an odd fit, logging only seven minutes on Tuesday. Rookie forward Julian Phillips played nine minutes, which could have been matchup-related or another sign of Carter’s diminishing role.

“I just control what I can control,” Drummond said. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, man. It didn’t change then. It won’t change now. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, great. Either way, I’m just going to continue to come in and do my job on a daily basis.”

Drummond’s tenure in Chicago has been short-lived. His minutes are sporadic. Tuesday night easily cracks his top-five moments wearing a Bulls jersey. He delighted the home crowd while posting his ninth double-double this season. He didn’t play like it was his last Bulls game. He played with the joy of someone playing their last game, ever.

After several scoring plays against the 7-foot-1 Gobert, Drummond pointed an open palm toward the floor to flash what’s become the universal sign for labeling a defender “too small.” Once, Drummond pressed both palms to the floor. After an overtime dunk against Gobert — a shot Gobert blocked only for the ball to still go through the hoop — Drummond reversed his hands. He raised both his palms.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Drummond said, laughing.

Against one of the NBA’s biggest frontlines, the Bulls also had a season-high 16 blocks.

Craig, who was sidelined with a right plantar fascia injury, supplied one of the best. It came against Towns with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in regulation and the Bulls ahead by two. Donovan had just inserted him for Drummond 56 seconds earlier. Towns’ perimeter shooting was giving the Bulls fits. Craig shut it down.

“Torrey made a great block,” Donovan said.

Craig closed out against Towns from the middle of the free-throw line, where he helped Caruso and Vučević contain Edwards in a pick-and-roll. When Edwards kicked a pass to Towns on the left wing, Craig recovered and rejected Towns’ attempt, almost in the same motion. Then he saved his block from sailing out of bounds in front of the Bulls’ bench. After a brief scramble, DeRozan knocked the ball off Towns’ leg out of bounds.

“It’s hard because (Towns) is so versatile, and he posts, and he can shoot and he’s really good moving around on the perimeter,” Donovan said. “It was just an opportunity coming out of a timeout to throw a different look at him. Because what they were doing was a lot of flaring for him and popping him and running him over top of screens on the perimeter.

“It’s hard for Vooch, and it’s hard for Andre. I thought both guys did a really good job, as best they could for most of the game.”

Craig limped off the floor following a collision with just over a minute remaining. If he’s forced to miss time, the Bulls, whatever version takes the floor Thursday night at Memphis, will again need to be resilient.

“I don’t want to take away the way they’re fighting and competing and battling as a group,” Donovan said. “But it’s been two games where it’s a hard way to live.

“It’s hard to win games like that.”

(Top photo of Anthony Edwards, Alex Caruso and Nikola Vučević: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)