MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Thibodeau appears to have brainwashed his team again. After a month-long slog to the finish in which injuries, distractions and ineffectiveness piled higher than shredded NCAA tournament brackets, the Chicago Bulls looked like their old selves this past weekend.
Instead of playing down to the level of their competition, the Bulls, playing without Joakim Noah (foot), Marco Belinelli (ab strain), Richard Hamilton (back) and Derrick Rose (ACL), found a way to pound a bad Minnesota Timberwolves team inside and come out with a relatively easy 104-97 win Sunday night.
The Bulls have returned, at least temporarily, to believing the Thibodeau mantra that they can continue to win no matter who steps on the floor. Noah goes down with plantar fasciitis in his foot again? No problem. Belinelli is a late scratch because of an ab injury he's been playing with for a while? It's all right.
Over the course of the last few weeks, this kind of game would be one in which the Bulls would find a way to lose. Playing against a bad team, in a quiet arena, on the second night of a back-to-back would spell doom for this beleagured bunch -- but not now. The players have tasted success again, albeit briefly, and it has allowed them to get back to their old ways.
"I feel like if you hear the same things every day you start to buy into it," Bulls forward Jimmy Butler said after scoring 20 points in place of Belinelli. "Thibs is constantly telling us that we have enough to win on any given night so I feel like as long as we go out and we play hard and guard and play for one another we can win with however many men we're down with."
The Bulls have seen the way little-used parts like Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook played against the Pacers. They feed off of the energy guys like Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson provided off the bench against the Timberwolves. They are still holding onto the faint hope that if the rest of their teammates can remain healthy, especially Rose, they can make one final push down the stretch.
The key for the Bulls is that they are playing with a renewed sense of passion. They are hustling for balls and securing second and third possessions for each other as evidenced by the massive 52-32 rebounding advantage they held over Minnesota. In short, after looking lethargic for most of March, they are playing -- and listening -- the way Thibodeau has always wanted.
"We were in mud to start the game," Thibodeau said. "I thought we had some good looks that we didn't make but we got a second and third shot at it. I thought that that gave us life. And then once we got going a little bit I thought that was the whole key to the game."
Another huge key was the play of Robinson. More than a few times this season he has played the role of spark plug when the Bulls were in need of a boost. Without Noah in the lineup, he's the main guy the rest of his teammates feed off of and he's the one who has the ability to set an emotional tone the way he did against the Timberwolves, scoring 22 points and dishing out 10 assists.
"It's huge," Luol Deng said, with a smile. "He got ejected (Saturday) so he was rested. He had a lot of energy for us tonight so that was great."
For his part, Robinson seems to enjoy his time in the spotlight. He likes being the engine that drives the Bulls bench and he isn't surprised by the success he and his bench mates have had lately. He may not always run the offense the way Thibodeau likes, but he does have the type of confidence that Thibodeau can appreciate.
"We all made it to the NBA for a reason," Robinson said of the new bench group. "We're all professionals so one guy goes down another guy steps up and be ready to play."