MINNEAPOLIS -- Chicago Bulls coach Vinnie Del Negro wants to get back in the gym and practice.
The Bulls certainly weren't complaining about their 99-94 victory at Minnesota on Wednesday night -- their second victory in as many nights -- but they know that there is still much work to do before their Oct. 29 season opener against San Antonio.
Getting in that actual work has been difficult for Chicago so far this season. There was a trip to London for an exhibition game against Utah. No team has played more preseason games than Chicago (4-1). And throw in injuries to Derrick Rose and Tyrus Thomas and the Bulls aren't exactly sure what they have got.
"We need some practice time and transfer that into the game," Del Negro said. "We've had guys out longer than anyone would like. (The games are) not a great barometer, but guys are working. The guys that are playing are playing hard. We're improving in some areas, but we have to get our main guys to get in the flow a little bit."
That may begin to happen. Del Negro said Thomas (sore hip) is expected to practice on Thursday. Rose, the 2008-09 NBA Rookie of the Year, is getting closer to returning from an ankle injury.
"We need Tyrus and Derrick back," said Luol Deng, who scored 14 points. "We've got to get better. We're not going to know what kind of a team we have until about a month into the season. Definitely with those two guys back, we're a lot better of a team."
While many questions won't be answered until Rose and Thomas return, the Bulls are simply trying to get into good habits.
"It's always a good feeling to win, but we know it doesn't really mean that much because it's preseason," said Joakim Noah, who also scored 14 for Chicago. "It's all about improvement. It's our first back-to-back and having two wins in a row and having the right mind-set, it's important."
While Chicago held a double-digit lead for much of the night against the Wolves (1-2), that cushion vanished down the stretch and the Bulls needed several key plays from Chris Richard (team-high 17 points, 13 rebounds) and James Johnson (9 points, 10 rebounds) to hold on. John Salmons also scored 16 points for the Bulls.
Trailing by 11 points to open the fourth quarter, Minnesota went on an 18-4 run to take a lead for the first time since the opening quarter. When Sasha Pavlovic made a 3-pointer from the left wing with 6:30 to play, the Wolves led 85-83.
Minnesota still led 91-90 when Flynn made a pair of free throws with 3:47 to play. But Johnson scored Chicago's next three baskets and grabbed a key offensive rebound. Richard sealed the victory by making two free throws with 14.3 seconds to play.
"Al's knee seems to be fine," Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said. "We'll see how they are (Thursday). As each game goes on, we'll continue to push the minutes up more and more. Corey doesn't seem to be showing any ill effects from his knee. Al seems to be still struggling with his conditioning. That's something he's going to have to push himself through and drive himself."
Despite the loss, Rambis said Minnesota improved over Friday's ugly loss to Toronto.
"We won the last three quarters, so I'm happy with their effort, particularly in the second half," Rambis said. "I thought they did a much better job doing some things we asked of them in practice and the game."
Deng jammed a finger on his left hand when he tried to catch a pass from Noah at the end of the third quarter. He didn't play in the fourth quarter, but will be fine. ... Chicago center Brad Miller did not make the trip because of illness. ... Minnesota rookie guard Wayne Ellington did not play after spraining an ankle in practice this week. Rambis called the move precautionary. Oleksiy Pecherov played for the first time in the preseason after missing the first two exhibition games with a wrist injury.
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