Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau frequently talks about players making plays that “unite and inspire” their teammates.
In Saturday night’s 87-84 win over their Central Division rivals, Indiana, the Bulls had a whole game of them.
Playing without All-Star center Joakim Noah—not to mention the erstwhile starting backcourt of Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton—the again short-handed Bulls eked out one of their trademark blue-collar wins, with contributions from the familiar (Luol Deng and Taj Gibson) and unexpected (Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook) leading the way.
“Yeah, that’s the way we have to play. We have to do it collectively. A lot of guys stepped up,” Thibodeau stated. “We needed everybody.”
Let’s start with Deng, who has been struggling through a miserable shooting slump since the All-Star break—Thibodeau bristled at the notion that Deng’s been struggling, countering, “He’s doing a lot of other things on the floor to help us win”—although he’s continued to defend and rebound the ball at a high level, as well as be an offensive threat that opposing defenses have to account for, even when he isn’t putting up gaudy numbers.
“I really made the game simple today. I didn’t take any shots out of my character,” explained Deng, who scored 20 points on efficient 7-of-14 shooting, as well as grabbing seven rebounds, all while battling fellow All-Star swingman Paul George, another one of the league’s best two-way players, as well as an emerging young superstar. “We did a good job of executing and guys did a good job, especially in the post, of finding me for easy baskets.”
Thibodeau added: “I thought Luol was terrific, set the tone."
“That’s what he’s done for three years. He gives the team whatever we need. A lot of people overlook that,” he continued. “George had foul trouble, so we wanted to see if we could go at him a little bit. But George is a great player. That guy, he’s something else. You worry about him on offense. You worry about him on defense because of all the stuff he’s doing out there. You’ve got to pay attention to him.”
Then, there was Gibson, who had his second straight solid outing after missing 10 games with a left-knee sprain.
[RELATED: Gibson excels despite pain]
While he still isn’t at his best, due to both ongoing soreness and still getting back into peak condition, Gibson was his typical active self on both ends of the floor.
“Taj was in there mixing it up,” Thibodeau said about his top reserve, who had 11 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. “For the amount of time that he’s been out, I thought that he would be rusty. He’s so active out there and it’s given us a lot of energy, and that’s really what we needed.”
Gibson himself chimed in: “I’m just trying to just fly around, get back to my old self, just be able to fly around on defense and create havoc, and just bring energy. It’s a slow process, but I’m getting there and just playing through it.”
But Gibson and Deng, two mainstays over the past two seasons, are expected to perform well for the Bulls.
Mohammed, who was seldom used until recently, and Cook, a midseason acquisition, are different stories.
For Cook, who owns a reputation as a sharpshooter, it appears that he’s learned that in order to earn playing time in Chicago, he has to bring other qualities to the table.
Starting with his layup to beat the third-quarter buzzer and give the Bulls a 68-67 lead heading into the fourth quarter—which they never relinquished—continuing with timely shooting, ability to create for others and willingness to mix it up, then concluding with a hustle play to prevent a Pacers fast-break layup, Cook truly made his presence felt.
His night ended with a left-thigh bruise after crashing into a cameraman on the baseline while saving that loose ball, but he certainly impressed Thibodeau, not to mention igniting the United Center crowd.
“I thought he played really well. That was a big-time hustle play he made to come up with the ball. We know about his ability to shoot, but it’s the other things, so that was a good sign,” Thibodeau said. “He was mixing it up, he was battling on the boards. I liked that.”
Cook, who had nine points, five rebounds and two assists, concurred: “Even though my shot wasn’t falling—I was making some shots—there were other things I was doing, as far as rebounding and making plays, creating shots for other teammates.
“When Coach calls your name, it’s just about taking advantage of the opportunity, of doing what you can as a player to help your team win, and that’s what I came out and did tonight,” he added. “It’s just all about preparation, just being patient, waiting your turn and that’s the most important thing, just staying in tune about it, so I always prepare that I’m going to play any game. I’ve always got to have that mindset because you never know when you’re name’s going to be called, so that helps me out a lot.”
For Mohammed, a Chicago native, this season has been an exercise in patience, as it looked like the veteran center had fallen out of the rotation, only to play solid in brief stints as of late and then, get the start Saturday in place of Noah.
He responded by playing 31 minutes, scoring 11 points and dishing out three assists—all season-highs, in addition to snatching seven rebounds—but more significantly, he provided some resistance against 7-foot-2 Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who looked to be more of an offensive focal point with Indiana power forward David West sidelined.
“I thought Hibbert was very aggressive. I thought Nazr battled with him,” Thibodeau said. “He’s been solid the last month. He’s put a lot of work in and he’s gotten comfortable. He’s a big body and he uses his size well. A lot of our driving opportunities are occurring because of what he’s doing to seal his guy. He has all the tricks of the trade, he’s been around and they’re little things, but important things.”
Mohammed explained that after being mostly dormant during games for the majority of the season, the heavy minutes were an adjustment, but one that was worth it, especially since he’s changed his mentality about playing time.
“My body hasn’t experienced it in a while—at least playing minutes—but I think I should be all right. I’ve got a lot of hours in between now and tomorrow. I’m going to get some treatment, sip on some water, couple of Advil and get ready,” he said. “My whole feeling was we needed a win. We needed a win real bad, so I just wanted to try to make it tough on Hibbert. He’s a good player, he tries to get his hook shot over his right or left shoulder, so I just wanted to kind of keep him away from the basket, anticipate some of the moves and just challenge him.”
“I’ve been really focused and I’ve been prepared to play since Day 1. I’ve done a couple different things. I’ve felt like I’ve played better over the last month or so, so I just feel pretty good and kind of understand the schemes we’re trying to get done.
"Just taking it back to basics. Just staying in the gym, taking extra shots, going over early. But actually, the biggest thing is just a mindset, the mindset of being prepared not to play. But also keeping your mind ready to play. That’s a really hard thing for all athletes, knowing that you probably won’t play, but keeping that preparation that you probably will go out there, so my mindset has kind of changed. I just kind of want to maximize my minutes, even if it’s two minutes. That was my mindset. I stopped thinking about playing eight, nine, 10 minutes and started thinking about playing well for two minutes,” Mohammed continued.
“It’s difficult, but I’m getting paid the big bucks. Nobody cares if it’s difficult. People go home, they can care less that it’s difficult to not know if you’re going to play, but be prepared to play. But that’s in the job description. You’ve got to try to do it to the best of your abilities. Some nights, it’s going to be good. Some nights, it’s not.”
And don’t think the contributions of Cook and Mohammed, regardless of their numbers, weren’t noticed by the Bulls’ regulars.
“We got a lot of big minutes out of Daequan, Nazr Mohammed. Guys were just filling their role. Nobody complained. We just kept running the right plays, guys were just playing basketball. But we kept the right plays for the right people at the right time, and it worked,” Gibson explained. You look at Daequan, coming from the teams he was playing on, knockdown shooter. In this league, it’s all about confidence and Naz, his resume speaks for itself. He won a championship, played on numerous great teams, he’s always ready to go…they stepped up big and everybody was pulling for them, and that’s what we needed.”
Deng chimed in: “Sometimes they don’t play at all, but they’re working in the gym. Some of the guys have been in the league long enough; they know that the opportunity’s going to come. They stay ready, so we don’t miss a beat as a team.”
Thibodeau, as is his nature, both downplayed what occurred Saturday and raised expectations for his team moving forward.
“The challenge for us all year has been this: We’re short-handed, we’ve got to play with great intensity all the time and that’s our chance,” he explained. “We’ve shown resiliency all year long and if you get a tough loss, you’ve got to bounce back the next day and find a way to win. If you’re down another guy, whoever the next guy is, get in there and get the job done.
“I like that part of it. Going through some adversity is good and in the end, it makes you better. I want us to be mentally tough, I want us to have the ability to get through things and we can’t feel too good about ourselves,” the coach continued. We’ve got to be ready tomorrow. Minnesota’s playing well.”