MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The big story for the Chicago Bulls this week has been the salary cap space they cleared for this summer’s free agent frenzy.
The new guys they got played their debut like more than mere footnotes, though.
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Kirk Hinrich had 20 points and helped the Bulls stay balanced after a couple of rotation-altering trades, outlasting Minnesota 100-94 on Friday night after a bunch of missed layups and free throws by the Timberwolves.
Hakim Warrick and Flip Murray each had a hand in the game-changing run to start the fourth quarter, eager to prove their value beyond those faceless, precious expiring contracts the NBA has become so obsessed over.
“It was good for me to be able to come in and try to fit right into the rotation and fit into the system,” said Murray, who had six points in the first four minutes of the final period in his first game since coming from Charlotte. “Got a chance to go up and down with them, so we’ll go with it from there.”
Derrick Rose scored 19 points and Luol Deng pitched in 18 points for the Bulls, who rallied from an eight-point second-quarter deficit and clutched a 79-78 lead after Ramon Sessions finished a fast break for Minnesota with a dunk.
But Hinrich, Warrick and Murray helped Chicago take it from there, while the bricks and bad body language began to pile up for the Wolves. The Bulls went up 91-80 on a pair of free throws by Rose with 6:32 left.
“You could just see that our guys were getting more and more frustrated,” coach Kurt Rambis said.
Corey Brewer led the way with 19 points for Minnesota, but even he had trouble, missing four of his five foul shots. The Wolves went 6 for 18 from the floor in the fourth quarter and missed eight of 13 free throws in the final 12 minutes.
“I’d never seen anything like that. I guess all our energy was gone,” said Al Jefferson, held to 10 points and five rebounds.
The Bulls still have the fifth seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs in sight, with wins in five of their last six games to climb into sixth place. Since beating Minnesota at home on Jan. 9, they’re 14-6 – 9-4 on the road including this rematch.
“All the guys who were here before, the guys now – the goal in this league is to win,” Hinrich said. “I feel like we’ve put ourselves in a good position to have a good strong finish.”
Insisting they’re still focused on making the playoffs and not distracted by the dream of luring Dwyane Wade to his hometown, the Bulls are in a favorable stretch of the schedule for this transition to the new players. Seven of their first eight games out of the All-Star break are against losing teams.
Joakim Noah’s energy and rebounding were still missing for the Bulls, and Warrick and Murray replaced Tyrus Thomas and John Salmons, their third-leading scorer, as the first men off the bench.
Salmons was traded to Milwaukee in the deal that brought Warrick and Thomas went to Charlotte earlier this week.
Murray had eight points in 19 minutes and Warrick shot 5 for 13 and finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes, with both of them pushing through the mistakes coach Vinny Del Negro predicted before the game.
“They’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable, where to be in the rotations and things,” Del Negro said. “But you know they know how to play. They gave us a boost.”
The Wolves, wearing their original 1989 blue road jerseys with white trim and green numbers, have at least shown some life in most of their home games, unlike so many of their woeful efforts on the road in this rebuilding year. They shot 53.3 percent in the first half, and Rambis lamented the loss after praising their help defense and ball movement on offense, two nuances of the game that have been often missing.
After a season-high four-game winning streak earlier this month, the Wolves have sputtered after the All-Star break.
“They haven’t really blossomed as a team,” Rambis said. “There’s still guys trying to figure each other out. They’re still trying to figure themselves out. So when you take a break, you’ve got nothing to go back to kind of hold on to.”
NOTES: Noah, who has missed seven straight games with the painful plantar fasciitis irritation in his left foot, is feeling a little better but unlikely to play Saturday against the Sixers, Del Negro said. “We want to be smart about it,” Del Negro said. … This was only the second win for Chicago at Minnesota in the last 12 meetings at Target Center. … Minnesota’s Darko Milicic joined the team on Friday, but didn’t dress for the game. He sat behind Rambis in a pinstriped suit jacket, but it’s not clear when he’ll start playing. “He said he’s not in great shape right now,” Rambis said.