MINNEAPOLIS — Two hours before game time against the Timberwolves, Tom Thibodeau spoke flatly as his Bulls team readied for another pivotal contest in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
But once the conversation turned to his days with the Timberwolves — even two decades later — the Chicago coach’s eyes lit up, and his smug, straight-lipped expression yielded a noticeable grin.
"Whenever I come back, I always think to the first year in the (Metrodome) and the second year coming here," Thibodeau said, referring to his days as an assistant under Bill Musselman during the Minnesota franchise’s first two seasons of existence. "The great support that we had."
An assistant at Harvard before cracking the professional ranks, Thibodeau used to attend Musselman’s practices as head coach of the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons. When original owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner founded the Timberwolves and hired Musselman to be their coach in 1989, he brought Thibodeau and a handful of CBA connections with him.
That started Thibodeau on his long road to becoming an NBA head man himself. Musselman and his staff were let go following the 1990-91 campaign, and Thibodeau went on to be an assistant with the Spurs, 76ers, Knicks, Rockets and Celtics before the Bulls gave him his first top job in 2010.
With Derrick Rose out due to another knee injury and Luol Deng being traded away in January, few thought Chicago would be in its current position. But thanks to Thibodeau’s tutelage and the maximized effort from Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and the crew, the Bulls entered Wednesday’s matchup with Minnesota fourth in the East standings with a chance to move into the third spot before the season ends.
That has Thibodeau in consideration for the league’s coach of the year award.
For him, downtown Minneapolis is where it all began. The Bulls flew into Minnesota a day early, and Thibodeau was even able to take in — and scout — their win Tuesday against San Antonio.
His favorite memory: Minnesota’s final three games in the Dome, which drew 45,458, 40,415 and 49,551 fans to help set an NBA single-season attendance record that still stands today. The Timberwolves moved into the Target Center the following season.
"Bill Musselman just did an incredible job getting the team off the ground," Thibodeau said. "The entire organization did, for that matter — selling it to the fans, the fans supporting us, and Marv and Harv bringing the NBA back to Minneapolis was huge."
Othyus expectations: Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman knows what he’s getting from Othyus Jeffers, whom the team signed Tuesday for the rest of the season. The D-League guard who has yet to stick in the NBA for an extended period of time spent summer league in a Minnesota uniform. Training camp, too.
The equipment staff didn’t even need to have a new name plate created to go above his locker.
"We know who he is," Adelman said of Jeffers, who was cut before the regular season. "I think we know he’s gonna play hard. That’s one thing he’s gonna do, and he’s gonna defend. I think that it’s just a bonus that we had him for all of training camp."
The coach added he’d be comfortable inserting Jeffers to defend an opponent’s top scorer during Minnesota’s final five games.
Jeffers averaged 8.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in six games and shot 53.3 percent from the field during summer league play in Las Vegas. In a sextet of preseason contests, he played 14.3 minutes per game and tallied 4.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest.
The 28-year-old Chicago native is under contract through the end of the season and could be signed to the team’s summer league and training camp rosters if the front office so choose. Jeffers has appeared in 36 NBA games since 2009, including a 10-day call-up from the Iowa Energy to San Antonio earlier this season.
He played 1 minute, 34 seconds Tuesday night against San Antonio and didn’t record an individual statistic.
Barea out: The injury-riddled Timberwolves will deploy Wednesday the same starting lineup that beat the Spurs on Tuesday night, but one of their top reserves will be out.
Backup point guard J.J. Barea will miss Wednesday’s game with back spasms and a sore neck, Adelman said. That leaves Minnesota with 10 active players against the Bulls.
Chase Budinger (sprained right ankle) and Shabazz Muhammad (right MCL sprain) are likely out for the season, and Nikola Pekovic (sore right ankle) and Kevin Martin (sore right heel) were ruled out for Wednesday’s contest.