Both men were living in denial after the fact, acting as if offense-defense substitutions, bringing back key rotation players down the stretch and the overall tenor of the exhibition affair was simply business as usual.
Tom Thibodeau took the clinical approach when asked about the intense nature of Friday night’s 103-98 Bulls preseason win over Indiana at the United Center.
“We talked about increasing Derrick’s minutes some and it’s just the way it unfolded,” the coach said. “We wanted to get them up about four or five minutes.”
Rose played 31 minutes—scoring 32 points and dishing out nine assists in an electrifying performance—eight more than his previous high-minute total in his comeback campaign.
Thibodeau’s counterpart, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel initially took a more humorous approach with reporters, before adopting a similar rationale.
“Just another preseason game, right? Right? That’s what it felt like to you guys?” he joked. “No matter who we’re playing, final four [preseason] games, that’s what we do. We go with a semi-normal rotation. We don’t play starters starter’s minutes, balance the minutes out. But going into the fourth quarter, going for the win.”
It should be noted that Vogel’s squad is winless in the preseason, while Thibodeau’s team is currently undefeated. But enough with the coach-speak justifying a bizarre set of circumstances for this juncture of the season, which was more reminiscent of a playoff clash in May than a mere exhibition contest.
For a dose of honesty about the situation, Bulls backup big man Taj Gibson has you covered. When asked if anything about the game seemed funny, Gibson responded, quite soberly, “Nah, nah. It didn’t seem funny.”
Then the Brooklyn, N.Y., native got animated: “Both teams were going at it. We didn’t care if it was preseason. The way the trash talking was out there, it was crazy! Cheap shots, trash talking. It was unbelievable tonight and how intense it was? I forgot it was a preseason game.
“Both coaches were standing up. I wasn’t surprised at all. Both coaches are very smart. They’re good at what they do. They just find ways to win. Derrick was hot. The second unit did a good job. Our rooks are learning fast, Marquis is playing phenomenal. We’ve got our closer back, Derrick, and it was great,” added the reserve, in the midst of a stellar preseason. “It felt like a playoff game, it really did. They were cheap-shotting. I’m in pain right now and I was kind of mad: Thibs said we’ve got practice. I was like, ‘Thibs.’ But it was crazy, the way guys were flying. Bodies were just going left and right. Thibs was yelling, their coach was yelling. The refs had a heart attack because they probably though it was a walk in the park, but they were really getting screamed on by Thibs every play down. But it was a great game.”
“The way they play, the way they talk trash, we talk trash back. We’re not going to back down, they’re not going to back down. It’s just one of those rivalries.”
While Gibson tacitly admitted the animosity between the two Central Division squads, he also put the game in perspective.
“It’s just preseason. But at the end of the day, we’re just worried about us, worried about us getting better, getting guys different looks. You see I’m playing five, you see Murph’s playing five, four. Naz is starting, getting good minutes. It’s about guys getting solid reps,” he explained. “Our rooks are learning, Derrick is looking 100 times better—I keep telling people that—and it’s all about guys just getting good reps and getting confidence because we’re going to need everybody late.”
Bulls newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. has a unique take on things, having been a member of the Pacers when the Bulls took on an Indiana team featuring holdovers like All-Star small forward Paul George, center Roy Hibbert and veteran Danny Granger. The two teams faced off in a first-round playoff series back in 2011, Rose’s MVP season, and while the Bulls dispatched the Pacers in five games, it wasn’t, as Gibson would say, “a walk in the park.”
“I think it was just a competitive series, a competitive group of guys on both sides. Played them tough in a few games and that was a hungry team over there. It was an eighth seed and they’ve gotten so much better over the years, and they’re just as hungry now as they were,” Dunleavy told CSNChicago.com. “I think any time you have teams that are really within the division, play each other this many times a year—preseason, regular season, playoffs—and both teams are good, both teams think they can beat each other, it’s just going to be natural. It’s a natural rivalry, so that’s kind of where it’s at. I think there’s a respect level and it should be a very competitive season.”
Rose considered it a rivalry back then and for whatever reason—most likely because he has higher aspirations, namely the Heat, who the Bulls will take on in the Oct. 29 regular-season opener—doesn’t view the Pacers as a rival now, though he didn’t hesitate to credit Indiana.
“When you’re playing against a great team like they are, it kind of becomes like a playoff atmosphere where you know each other, we played them a few times, we always have wars against them, so it gets kind of tough, but we should be fine,” he said. “They’re just a tough team. Like I said, we haven’t built up that rivalry yet, I feel like. Probably to you all, it seems like a rivalry, but to us we’re taking it like a regular game.”
That’s probably music to his coach’s ears. When asked if found it significant that his team’s win, making the Bulls 5-0 in the preseason, held any significance, Thibodeau responded in the negative.
“No,” he deadpanned. “The only thing I want us to concentrate on is improvement. I want us to build winning habits, but we need everyone to work. We need everyone to practice.”
Yeah, just a normal preseason game.