You can't help but be caught up in Rubio fever when watching a Timberwolves game. And maybe the fact that Rick Adelman makes you wait 10 minutes before seeing the guy only fuels that. Until that point, Derrick Rose took advantage of his much ballyhooed rivalry with Minnesota starter Luke Ridnour, hitting his first six shots (including two 3-pointers). Rose soon exited after his ankle was fell upon by Anthony Tolliver during a loose ball situation, but the Bulls bench kept the heat on to the point where they were up 24 points and shooting 65% to the Wolves 27%.
But then the Wolves found a solid lineup with Rubio at the helm with support from Kevin Love and Anthony Randolph, closing the first half on a 20-2 run and surging through the 3rd quarter to eventually tie the game. Rubio started the 2nd half to keep that run going, and may have permanently won the job on this night. And interesting to see first-hand why there's been all that griping regarding Minny's starting lineup in the first place, he and that lineup were extremely impressive. Not much more than what a lot of us have seen in highlights over the opening weeks to the season, but still something to see in an extended viewing how he can make plays for teammates effortlessly yet precisely, and is always looking to do so. And even on defense: he no-doubt will struggle against many NBA PGs first steps (least of which being Derrick's), but showed impressive hands and even swiped the ball straight-up from Rose a couple times.
Meanwhile in the time where Minnesota closed the gap, Rose himself did not look like he had overcome the ankle sprain from earlier. There are always flashes of explosiveness even when he's hobbling, but you know when he's not looking to take over even on broken possessions both how great he is at his peak, and also how much the Bulls need him to be at that peak. The offense slows to a standstill without him forcing the defense to move, as though both Boozer and Noah had solid starts to the game (perhaps buoyed by the awful Wolves starting lineup) they showed yet again how they can't be counted on to carry the offensive load even for spurts.
And by the fourth quarter both starting bigs were benched for good. The Bulls frontcourt depth once again paved the way to victory as both Taj and Asik were able to provide a more active defense to force some transition opportunities. It's a luxury, but also still a story unless you believe that the bench bigs are the Bulls best chance to beat Miami. Until then, it'll always a concern when the ideal best option can't show it.
But who definitely showed it all night and carried the team even when Rose was slowed down was Luol Deng. 42 minutes (Rose played the same on the injured ankle, minutes-watchers), 11 rebounds and 21 points on 9-17 shooting. He guarded Wes Johnson to start the game and Kevin Love to finish it. Luol even found his 3-point stroke a bit going 2-4, and the team as a whole shot great from that range between him, Rose (4-8, minus at least one heave) and Kyle Korver (3-3). Korver was speculated (here) to be likely out of the rotation this season with the signing of Rip Hamilton and an improved Ronnie Brewer. Brewer has certainly stayed improved (17 points on 10 shots tonight), but Korver has been a consistent boost as well, going 14-26 from distance in his past four, a roll that's been especially timely with Rip and CJ Watson unable to play.
The Bulls were extremely backcourt heavy tonight, with Boozer/Noah/Asik/Gibson only accounting for 25 of the team's 111 points. The Wolves indeed allowed the Bulls to play small, but once again that was also out of necessity as well as opportunity. Whether its Boozer shooting from too far, or Noah not even being able to shoot before a guard ripped the ball from him, the Bulls were forced to rely on activity plays from their bench bigs (though Asik actually threw in a couple moves today over the much-shorter Love) instead of something that can be considered solid and sustained frontcourt scoring.
Often times, it's enough. The Bulls did ultimately win by 11, and Derrick Rose yet again made fantastic late plays to seal the victory, sore ankle be damned (and sure to never be admitted). The Timberwolves look like a team that will have a lot of close losses, and the Bulls as we know are a team that simply wins with that defense+Rose formula. This one may have been tougher than expected, but they get an extremely soft landing with a home date against the Wizards. So yet again, they stay great without looking particularly great, and we're left wondering just how real it is. I suppose it's real until it isn't.