MINNEAPOLIS – The Bulls played without Joakim Noah for a second straight game, and Derrick Rose has been out all season.
What they’ve never lost is their take-it-to-you identity, and that’s something the Minnesota Timberwolves have been searching for all year long.
Nate Robinson had 22 points and 10 assists and Carlos Boozer added 19 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Bulls to a 104-97 victory over the Timberwolves on Sunday night.
Luol Deng scored 17 points and Taj Gibson had 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls, who remained a half-game back of Atlanta for fifth in the East. With Noah sidelined again by plantar fasciitis, the Bulls still outrebounded Minnesota 52-32, including 20 offensive rebounds.
“[Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] is constantly telling us that we have enough to win on any given night,” said guard Jimmy Butler, who had 20 points and nine rebounds. “As long as we go out and play hard, guard and play for one another, we can win no matter how many men we’re down.”
Derrick Williams scored 28 points and Ricky Rubio had 15 points and eight assists for the Timberwolves.
Minnesota got as close as five points in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls overpowered the Wolves down the stretch to win back-to-back road games for the first time since Jan. 16-18.
“They could complain about how many guys they’ve got hurt and they don’t do that,” Rubio said. “They just play aggressive. We have to learn from that. If they can do it, we can do it, too.”
Dante Cunningham’s jumper with five minutes to play trimmed a 16-point deficit to 90-85, but Deng grabbed another offensive rebound on the next trip down the floor, then hit Robinson for an open 3-pointer at the top of the arc. The ball swished through, and Robinson pumped his fist as thousands of Bulls fans roared.
“We have to learn to do it first,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You can’t let them dominate the game from the start and get a feel for how the game is going to go.”
The Bulls also played without Richard Hamilton (lower back), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and, of course, Rose, who is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Even without Noah prowling the paint, the Bulls were still the aggressors. Veteran Nazr Mohammed made his second straight start and helped neutralize Nikola Pekovic on the block. Gibson pounded the Wolves on the glass and Robinson, the Bulls’ 5-foot-9 pit bull, was his typical tenacious self at the point of attack.
One night after he was kicked out for taking down Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, Robinson gave the Bulls a needed jolt of energy after a sluggish start on a back-to-back.
He had 11 points and six assists in the second quarter and fed Gibson for a soaring alley-oop and a 16-point lead just before the half.
“I’m an energy guy off the bench, just get guys fired up and I think I do a pretty good job of that,” Robinson said.
Rubio tried to rally the Wolves in the third quarter, throwing bounce passes between Bulls legs for open layups and barreling to the basket with little regard for the left ACL that he tore last March. He returned in December and, even though there’s an occasional limp in his gait when he peels himself up from the court after crashing into a defender, his game has been back to where it was before the injury for about the last month.
The Bulls can find some solace in that while their own star point guard works his way back. Rose has been out longer than Rubio was, but he relies so much more on athleticism and explosion than does Rubio.
There is still no target date for Rose’s return, leading to some speculation that he may not return this season at all.
NOTES: Timberwolves PF Kevin Love received his commemorative ring for winning the gold at the London Olympics before the game. “I ordered it a size bigger so it can fit my fat finger when I’m 50 or 60,” he said. Love has only played in 18 games this season because of a broken right hand. He said he will get a CT scan sometime later this week in hopes of being cleared for contact.