Backup centers step forward as Chicago Bulls beat Minnesota

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, center, drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, left, and guard Shabazz Napier during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The Bulls won 117-110.

    Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, center, drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, left, and guard Shabazz Napier during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The Bulls won 117-110.

 
 
Updated 1/22/2020 10:29 PM

A few weeks ago, Bulls backup centers Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio weren't playing at all.

But with Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle) and rookie Daniel Gafford (thumb) both sidelined by injuries, Kornet and Felicio are getting all the minutes. On Wednesday night at the United Center, they faced a huge task against Minnesota all-star Karl-Anthony Towns but managed to hold their own in a 117-110 victory.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Towns scored 40 points, but Kornet and Felicio combined for 27. And with 12 points and 10 rebounds, Felicio recorded his first double-double since April 7, 2018.

"He does what he does," Kornet said of Felicio. "Screening to get guys open and just rolling hard and offensive rebounding well and did a great job on Towns on a lot of possessions. He played great and it's something we all know he can do and it was great to see him have a good game."

There were a couple of unusual lineup decisions down the stretch that ended up paying off for the Bulls. Zach LaVine (25 points) stayed on the bench until the 7:01 mark of the fourth quarter, just after Coby White dribbled the ball off his foot. The turnover led to a lay-in and 3-point play by Keita Bates-Diop, and Minnesota pulled even at 96-96.

Then after a timeout with 3:19 left, coach Jim Boylen came back out with a four-guard lineup and Lauri Markkanen (21 points) as the only big. The Timberwolves went straight to Towns in the post and he scored with ease, including a 3-point play, to put Minnesota ahead 108-106 with 2:15 left.

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Boylen stuck with the small lineup and the Bulls made it work. After Kris Dunn's lay-in tied the score, the Timberwolves didn't go back to Towns, for some reason, and Robert Covington missed a 3. On the other end, LaVine hit a quick 3 off a handoff from Markkanen to put the Bulls ahead for good with 1:27 left.

Minnesota lost the ball out of bounds on its next possession, then Napier and Wiggins missed 3-pointers, while LaVine and Dunn added clinching free throws.

"I just thought we needed to score," Boylen said. "It was kind of a two-headed decision on what we were doing and what we could do. I thought it would help us at the other end.

"Towns is a great player and he's healthy. We've always kind of struggled with him. He's very talented. When he gets his 3-ball going, he's a tough guard. The center position in our system is very important."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Bulls (17-29) seemed to be pretty helpless when it came to stopping Towns in the first half, as he hit 8 of 10 shots for 22 points. Boylen changed things up in the third quarter and started Felicio instead of Kornet, who had 3 fouls at halftime. Rather than getting Kornet in deeper foul trouble, it was Towns who picked up his fourth foul at the 9:15 mark of the third quarter.

Towns sat out for the rest of the quarter, but the Timberwolves outscored the Bulls 25-18 without him as Andrew Wiggins scored 12 points in the quarter. The Bulls led by as many as 19 points in the first half.

"The guy had 40, so it's not like we locked him down," Kornet said. "We were kind of playing slow on the post and sticking to our team rules. You know he's going to score."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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