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Bulls vs. Timberwolves Preview: The Thibodeau Strikes Back

A game over a year and a half in the making is finally here, as Tom Thibodeau makes his return to the United Center to take on his former team.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly five years of memories and a year and a half of personal beef will come pouring out tonight at the United Center, as the Chicago Bulls are set to take on a Minnesota Timberwolves squad coached by former beloved, Tom Thibodeau.

It seems like just yesterday that Thibs got escorted out of the Advocate Center by security after losing to the Cavaliers in six games during the 2015 playoffs. For those paying attention, the writing for change was on the wall, but it didn’t make the news hurt any less. Making matters worse was the fact that—despite the monumental success Thibodeau had in his time with the team (even under abysmal roster conditions)—the Bulls’ higher ups kicked him to the curb with one of the most spiteful sending offs the sports world has ever seen.

Now, a year and a half later, the former favorite sideline screamer of Bulls fans everywhere has come back to where he made his mark as a head coach. With him, Thibs brings perhaps the most enigmatic team in the NBA; one that has exceptional talent but also just can’t seem to translate that talent into wins on a nightly basis.

There are three teams in the NBA that boast three players averaging twenty points per game: Golden State, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns has already established himself as one of the future superstars in the association, as he’s putting up a line of 21.6/10.8/2.3 pts/rbs/asts in only his second season. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins leads the team in scoring with 22.2 ppg and is shooting a career high 38.5% from beyond the arc. He also already has runner up for Dunk of the Year locked up, and he’s only second place because his teammate Zach LaVine—having a transcendent year of his own—did this to Alex Len a few nights before. Speaking of which, LaVine is currently averaging 20.4 ppg and making the Bulls look increasingly stupid for trading up just to draft Der McDougmott in 2014. Did I mention all three of those aforementioned Timberwolves are each only 21 years old?

But that right there is about where the positives end for the T-Wolves this season, because the squad is currently falling well short of the hopes a lot of fans had for them. The team currently boasts a 6-18 record, have not won a game in regulation since the day after Thanksgiving, and have lost 11 of their last 13 games. Things reached a critical point last Friday night after the T-Wolves lost to the Pistons at home by 27 points, a defeat that prompted Ricky Rubio to declare that the team is currently playing with no heart or desire... and doesn’t really seem to care. Thibodeau echoed those sentiments and noted that everything would be on the table going forward in terms of sparking necessary change.

Matchup wise, Minnesota and Chicago have some key similarities. Their offensive efficiency ratings are within roughly a point of each other, their pace of play is almost identical, and both teams are among the pinnacle of the NBA when it comes to offensive rebounding. However, the achillies heal for the Timberwolves this season has surprisingly been their defense, as this Thibodeau-led unit somehow gives up an appalling 109.2 points per hundred possessions (27th overall). Given the incredibly similar pace of play the teams have, these factors together certainly bode well for the Bulls being able to score more points than their counterparts.

Yet, even after taking all of that into consideration, this game is still totally a toss up. Why? Because any time emotion plays a heavy role (and make no mistake, it certainly will tonight), logic and reason get thrown to the wind completely, not to mention the Bulls have lately gotten back to their funky last-season ways of beating elite teams while playing poorly against bad ones. I also have a hard time believing that Thibodeau doesn’t want to embarrass Gar Forman and John Paxson in their own backyard, and if his players have even a shred of respect for their head coach, they will do everything they can to grind out a victory.

That being said, if the Bulls can keep the T-Wolves’ big three from doing too much damage, I think a win should be well within reach. It will be a tall task in particular for Robin Lopez and Jimmy Butler, but the two of them are certainly more than capable of being up to the task. Elsewhere, while the Bulls’ bench is certainly nothing to write home about, it can’t be any worse than what the ‘Wolves are rolling out right now, and this game serves as an excellent opportunity for the former to get back on track. Further than that, as long as the Bulls don’t get into a close situation late that would open the door for Thibs to coach circles around Fred Hoiberg, I would expect the Bulls to avoid what would certainly be one of their more stinging losses of the entire season.

But whatever happens, we love you Thibs!

Tip is at 7:00 CT on ESPN. Michael Carter-Williams is still out with no timetable for a return.