There were a lot of familiar faces at the United Center on Friday night.
Tom Thibodeau, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler made their return to Chicago. The trio had great success during their time with the Bulls, but it was all business on Friday. Gibson said he wouldn’t watch the tribute video the Bulls had planned because he would get too emotional and also because he didn’t want Thibs to yell at him.
Some things never change.
Butler tried to downplay the game after an overtime loss to Cleveland on Wednesday, but we know him better than that.
“To me, another basketball game,” he said. “I play to win. I’m going to go out there, pass the ball when I’m not open, shoot it when I am. Hopefully play a little bit better defense and get us a dub.”
Fred Hoiberg knows Butler well and Friday night was not just another game.
For Zach LaVine, Friday night was also a reunion of sorts. He was involved in the trade that sent Butler to the Wolves. Unlike Butler, LaVine admitted that Friday’s game would be something more.
“Of course it means a little bit extra,” LaVine said.
After struggling for a while, LaVine seems to have found some comfort in his game. He’s not worried about replacing Butler. He’s focused on getting to the Bulls back to where they were.
“I’m not here to replace anybody but to become the next young guy for the Chicago Bulls, work my butt off and take this back to where it should be. You can’t replace a guy when you’re not that person. I’m Zach LaVine. I’m going to play like me, act like me. That’s just how I carry myself.”
Butler made his presence known in the first half, scoring 20 points, including a shot to beat the buzzer. The Wolves led by 10 at the half and by as many as 17 at one point. However, the young Bulls didn’t back down.
The Bulls erased the 17-point deficit to take a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. This was a game the Bulls would benefit from losing. With a loss to the Wolves, the Bulls would have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Losing a close game would have been a dream scenario, but LaVine wasn’t going to let that happen. He had his fourth straight 20-point game and made some crazy athletic plays down the stretch despite struggling on defense. His confidence is growing every game and he’s starting to feel it.
It was LaVine who tied the game at 111 with 40.6 seconds to go. As fate would have it, Butler was able to back down rookie Lauri Markkanen and put the Wolves up once again. On Friday night, it was the Butler-LaVine show and it didn’t disappoint.
To make things even crazier, LaVine was fouled with 17.2 seconds while shooting a three. He knocked down all three free throws to put the Bulls up one. At that point, everyone in the United Center knew who the ball was going to on the last possession of the game.
The Bulls trapped Butler, which left Karl Anthony Towns wide open. He missed, but Butler got the rebound and had another chance to win the ball game. He came up short and the Bulls found a way to break their seven-game losing streak.
LaVine finished with 35, while Butler scored 38, but it was LaVine who outscored Butler 15-13 in the fourth when it mattered most.
“I think it just played out that way,” LaVine said about he and Butler going head-to-head down the stretch.
Hoiberg’s going to sleep good tonight. He beat a team that was built to win with a team built to tank. Oh, it also may be because it was Thibs coaching on the other side. Either way, this was one of Hoiberg’s best wins as head coach of the Bulls.
Unfortunately, LaVine will not play tomorrow against the Washington Wizards. The Bulls are being cautious with him and that’s not a bad thing given their history of players coming off of ACL repairs.
Now, that Friday night’s over, it’s time for both the Bulls and the Wolves to move on. It was a fun 48 minutes, but these two teams are going on their own paths. Gibson made that clear.
“We had some great times here. We just moved on. We’re having a great situation in Minnesota. . . . We can’t afford to worry about any animosity.”