DEERFIELD, ILL. -- Expecting anything less from Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau would be foolhardy.
“We’ve already moved on,” he said when asked about the aftermath of Wednesday night’s win over the Heat at the United Center, snapping the 27-game winning streak. “All we’re thinking about is Dallas. You study, make your corrections and get ready for your next opponent. Never forget what’s in front of you.
“We’re not thinking about the Heat game. We’re thinking about the Dallas game. That’s where our focus needs to be,” he continued after the team’s Friday-afternoon practice at the Berto Center. “For us, the formula is always the same: Know your opponent well. Put everything you have into getting ready. And then give maximum effort. That’s what we have to do.
“The same things always go into winning. What we’re trying to do is just continue to improve and play our best going down the stretch and try to get as healthy as possible,” the coach went on to say. “It’s just a normal game. You have to defend and rebound. That’s how you have to play. You have to keep your turnovers down. Obviously, we have to do better with that. We have to be ready for Dallas. We know how good they are.”
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Veteran center Nazr Mohammed, who again started for injured center Joakim Noah -- the All-Star, along with shooting guard Marco Belinelli, participated in Friday’s session, but are game-time decisions for Saturday afternoon’s game in Dallas, according to Thibodeau --concurred with his coach’s thought process.
“In all honestly, I forgot about the Miami game. You know a day at home [on Thursday] with the family, and getting ready trying to watch a little bit of the Dallas game, I’ve been focused on Dallas. I pretty much started that on [Thursday]. It was a great win, but we have to be real with ourselves, it was a regular-season game, a regular-season win, it’s definitely great for our psyche, great for our confidence, but if we go out to Dallas and look past them, we don’t even want to be talking about the Miami game,” Mohammed said.
“It’s a focus-type thing. Everyone is locked in, everyone is focused. You just got to go out and kind of leave it on the floor,” he continued. “We know this is an important stretch to our season, heading into the playoffs, so we’re focused that Dallas is our next opponent.’’
When asked about Heat superstar LeBron James’ postgame assertions about the physical nature of the contest, Mohammed scoffed at the notion.
“[The media] has done a job of kind of covering the more physical plays through some of our other games, you know there were like three or four physical plays that were really physical plays, and now everyone feels the whole game was that way,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was that physical of a game. I hate to say that, but it was a regular basketball game. It wasn’t any more physical than any other night. There are some nights that games are a little less physical, but it wasn’t playoff-level physical.
“He probably felt that he got hit hard a couple of times and took some shots, so of course that’s something he would want to discuss with you guys afterwards. LeBron is a star of our league, so if he says something it’s definitely going to get some attention. Not much more to say about that,” Mohammed continued.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that when a guy is on your team and he’s getting hit, it always looks harder and worse than when he’s on the other team and you’re doing the hitting or someone else is doing the hitting,” he said. “Definitely if I was a teammate of his, I would feel for his side of it, but I’m not. I’m an opponent, and as an opponent, I think it was just nice hard fouls, hard basketball.
“There was a time when you ran through the lane a guy could just stand you up, hit you hard, and it was not a foul. The league has definitely gone to more freedom of movement to improve the scoring and help the offense out a little bit. But it was definitely more physical when I got into the league.’’
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Thibodeau praised Mohammed, who excelled during the preseason, then fell out of the rotation early in the regular season before bouncing back as of late to make significant contributions.
“Sometimes that’s the way it is. You’re moving into a new group; have to learn a new system. It took him a little time. Credit to him he put the work in and never got discouraged. He just kept working,” Thibodeau said of the Chicago native. “There are a lot of subtleties to his game. He’s a very good screener, very good offensive rebounder, has good touch from 15 feet. He understands what we’re trying to get accomplished out there now. For us, it’s five-man offense and five-man defense. So you have to know your job and do your job.”
Along with Belinelli and Noah, Mohammed’s former and current teammate, Rip Hamilton practiced Friday, though the veteran isn’t close to returning.
“Just more rehab stuff,” Thibodeau said about Hamilton, who is suffering from a bulging L-4 disk in his back. “He’s feeling a little better, too.”
Saturday will be a reunion with another member of the Pistons’ title-contender squads from the last decade, Mike James, who has emerged as Dallas’ starting point guard after beginning the campaign at home, then once again playing in the D-League before the Mavericks signed him, the same path that brought him to Chicago last season.
“He’s a fierce competitor. He’s always ready. He stays in great shape year-round. He did a great job for us,” Thibodeau said about the veteran floor general, whom he also coached in Houston. “It’s not surprising to me.”
While the Bulls had their way with the Mavericks, 101-78, Nov. 28 at the United Center, they’re not going into Saturday’s matchup with a sense of overconfidence, as Dallas has been making a playoff push as of late.
“Well, they’re a lot different from the first time we played them. No Dirk [Nowitzki], no Mike James. Brandan Wright didn’t play. Their bench is strong. They had a tough game last night but they’re playing at a very high level,” Thibodeau explained. “We have to realize they’re a team fighting for a playoff spot. If you’re not ready, you’ll be in trouble. We have to bring great intensity to that game. They’re fifth in the league in fast-break points. When they sub, there’s no drop-off. You’re looking at [Darren] Collison, [Vince] Carter, [Elton] Brand, [Chris] Kaman, [Jae] Crowder. Those guys are tough. They got off to a slow start because of injuries. Nowitzki is as tough a cover as there is in the league. So we have to be ready.”
Mohammed chimed in: “Oh, Dirk Nowitzki, that’s how different they are. You’re talking about a future Hall of Famer who is always a mismatch when he’s on the court, always a hard guard, so we have to do it as a team. They’re definitely a different team from the one we met earlier in the year.’’
If Belinelli, who is dealing with an abdominal strain, doesn’t play in Dallas, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler will likely be his replacement in the starting lineup.
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“He’s a lot better. But this is the time of the year you want to make sure you’re cleaning things up in terms of health. You don’t want things to linger. You want them to get as healthy as possible,” Thibodeau said about Belinelli. “We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”
Aside from his high-minute totals, Butler has been a revelation as a starter offensively and on defense, pairing him on the wing with All-Star Luol Deng, as well as defensive-minded point guard Kirk Hinrich has given the Bulls a formidable unit.
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“Well, we’ve used it all year. If you look back at the start of the year, there was always a four-minute stretch where we had Kirk, Jimmy, Luol, the power forward changed and Jo on the floor together. Defensively, they’ve always been very strong. Offensively, they’re starting to come along,” Thibodeau explained. “With Joakim and Taj [or] Carlos, that group usually the defense is very strong. We’ve used them together all year.”
Considering all of the injuries the team has suffered and the subsequent adjustments Thibodeau has had to make, it could be argued that this season’s coaching job has been the best of his three-year tenure in Chicago, a theory he refused to bite on.
“You don’t change. You put everything you have into each and every day. Everything takes care of itself. You’re always faced with different challenges. It’s how you respond to those challenges. If you’re doing everything you can, that’s all you can do,” he said. “They’re all the same. Your challenges may be different but you look at your circumstances and you have to make the best of those circumstances. The same things go into winning. You have to study your team, try to analyze what the strengths and weaknesses are of the players you have available. Play to those strengths, cover up your weaknesses, know your opponent well and put everything you have into getting ready.”
Expecting Thibodeau to respond otherwise would be foolish.