The Minnesota Timberwolves, the NBA's designated Next Big Thing, had hopes of playing for more than symbolic victories at this point in the year. It hasn't quite worked out that way. The Wolves entered Tuesday night's game in Chicago—coach Tom Thibodeau's return to the city he brought five consecutive playoff berths from 2011 to 2015—with a record of 6-18, tied for the worst in the league. The matchup with the Bulls, then, became all about the relocated coach: win one for the Thibber.
For much of the night, it seemed unlikely that Minnesota would manage anything close to that. Behind a locked-in Jimmy Butler and clever Dwyane Wade, the Bulls built a 16-point lead by the end of the first quarter and pushed it to 21 early in the second (the largest comeback of the season, at that point, was 20). The Timberwolves, remarkably athletic and infuriatingly young, were using all that athleticism mostly to get themselves out of position. They lurched into each other's space on the offensive end. They tossed ambitious fadeaways off the back of the rim. They guarded pick-and-rolls the way crash-test dummies drive cars.
Then the kid Wolves showed a little bit of what the hype has been all about, storming back to cut the halftime deficit to four and taking their first lead of the game midway through the third. They played as if their youth were an asset, guarding hard—if still not all that smart—and driving harder. Andrew Wiggins twisted down the lane, and Zach LaVine crossed over and canned jumpers. Karl-Anthony Towns didn't have his best night, going 6-21 from the field for 16 points, but he muscled Taj Gibson around admirably. Minnesota's sealing buckets testified to the power of fresh legs. With the game tied with just over a minute left, Wiggins trampolined to the United Center roof to let go of an easy 22-footer; after a subsequent Wade miss, LaVine snuck behind the Bulls' defense in transition for a layup.
It was an obvious strategy—wear down the opponent with sheer early-20s energy—that Timberwolves fans might rightly wonder why it doesn't work more often. Then they'll remember the early part of the game, buried but not erased by the later charge. The missed switches, the drowsy sets. The Timberwolves can make it look easy when the game opens up, and they can make it look impossible when the game slows down. The easy buckets come with a tax, levied at every ball screen and skip pass.
After the game, Thibodeau wasn't much interested in the implications of the victory beyond its nudging a bad record in the right direction. "As you're probably aware, we needed a win," he said. "Getting a win was what we needed." Wiggins was more willing to acknowledge the special stakes, calling Thibodeau's return "fuel to the fire. That made all of us want to do it more, to do it for coach." One day—hopefully soon, for the sake of the perpetually hoarse man pacing the sidelines—playoff positioning will provide the Timberwolves all the motivation they need. In the meantime, though, a bit of revenge, and a quick glimpse at what's coming, does nicely.