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Bulls can’t handle loss of Noah as T-wolves earn 95-86 victory

MinnesotTimberwolves forward KevLove (42) scores past Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during first half an NBA basketball game Monday

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) scores past Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: January 28, 2014 12:22AM

A team only can take so many punches.

Losing Derrick Rose for the season with a knee injury? Staggering, but nothing the Bulls haven’t dealt with before.

Watching Luol Deng, the “glue of the team,’’ traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers? A sad reminder of the business of basketball, but again, not a season-ender.

Losing Joakim Noah, the heart of the team? Coach Tom Thibodeau is as good as there is, but at some point, a breaking point is reached.

It came Monday night, when Noah left the United Center with flu-like symptoms before the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

And the Timberwolves (22-22) took advantage, beating the Bulls 95-86. The Bulls (22-22) fell to 4-10 against Western Conference teams.

“Whenever you lose an All-Star, you’re going to feel it,’’ forward Taj Gibson said. “He was playing really phenomenal. He’s one of the vocal leaders on the court. His rebounding, defense, controlling the offensive end as far as making plays for the guys. Things like this are going to happen. It’s up to the group and the guys behind him to gather up and try and push forward. We’ll learn from [Monday night], we’ll watch the film, but just have to keep pushing forward.’’

The Timberwolves scored 46 points in the paint, and big man Kevin Love (31 points) had his way inside and outside with Noah missing.

But as active as Noah is in the paint, Thibodeau said his passing and decision-making were missed most.

“You see what he does,’’ Thibodeau said. “I think what you can’t overlook is the importance of passing and what it means to your team and what it does for your team. Passing makes other people better. Jo is very unselfish, hits the open man, makes the game easy. He sets screens, gets the offensive boards. That stuff goes a long way.

“Sometimes you don’t necessarily see it statistically, but that movement and the playmaking, I thought we got into a pretty good rhythm offensively where we had good balance inside-outside, ball hitting the paint, rhythm threes and those sort of things. He’s playing at a very, very high level right now.’’

But as shaky as the offense looked, there was still life in the fourth quarter, especially after D.J. Augustin hit a three with 1:29 left, cutting the deficit to five.

Love responded by attacking the rim again, hitting an easy layup and crushing the Bulls’ comeback hopes before they got started.

The good news is Noah is expected back Wednesday at San Antonio.

“He’s terrific,’’ Thibodeau said. “He’s having a great season on both sides of the ball, and I think he’s doing a good job with his leadership. But we have a team of leaders, and we have to understand what goes into winning. You have to do it day after day after day. You can’t short-cut that process, and you have to put the work into the game. When you’re down players like we are, you have to play with a rare intensity for the entire game.’’


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