Don’t break out the champagne just yet.
Just because the Bulls snapped their four-game losing streak Wednesday night in Detroit doesn’t mean they’ll cruise for the remainder of the season. Of course, that’s not the expectation from outside observers anyway, in the wake of Derrick Rose’s knee injury and season-ending surgery.
But after getting over their initial malaise following the loss of their best player, the Bulls looked like a completely different team than previously on the Circus Trip, in their pre-Thanksgiving rout of a divisional opponent. That said, while most games shouldn’t be expected to be a repeat of the Pistons win — in which All-Star small forward Luol Deng was a dominant force, top reserve Taj Gibson had a career-high scoring outing, All-Star center Joakim Noah finally came alive again in the second half, veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich impacted the game on both ends of the floor and rookie Tony Snell blended right in — the same determined, blue-collar formula that worked for the Bulls last season (and always has in the Tom Thibodeau era, with Rose’s aesthetically pleasing game as an outlier, albeit an important one) shouldn’t fail them in the remainder of the campaign.
“It’s really the same. We’ve been through it three years, so we know no one can replace Derrick individually, so our only chance is to do it collectively and we have to do that on both ends. But we’re more than capable,” Thibodeau explained after Friday’s practice at the Berto Center, ahead of the team’s departure for Cleveland, where they have a Saturday-night matchup against the Cavaliers. “I love the makeup of the team. I think they’re hard-working, they play for each other. I think the concentration has been very good, and we’re still down Jimmy. We get Jimmy back, that’ll be huge for us, but we’ve got a lot of guys stepping up right now.
“Offensively, we were very good in the (Pistons) game and we got our defense going in the second half, so we still have to be a 48-minute team,” the coach went on to say. “I thought we guarded the three a lot better, I thought we contained dribble penetration better, I thought we challenged shots better, I thought the ball movement and making plays for each other was better, and I thought Tony stepped up. He made shots for us, and that was huge. Luol was terrific throughout, and Jo was big-time in the second half, on both ends of the floor. We need everyone. Taj had a big game for us. Each night, it will be someone different.”
Thibodeau insisted that outside opinions about the Bulls’ preordained fate without Rose haven’t affected the team’s mindset. And why should it, given that they had the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference last season, playing through multiple injuries, and made it to the second round of the playoffs, despite being down multiple key players?
“It really doesn’t matter what other people think. The only thing that matters is what we think, and at the beginning of the season, when people pick certain teams to do something and oftentimes, they’re wrong, so you have to play the games and you have to concentrate on your improvement,” he said. “At the end, it’s the teams that are the healthiest and are playing the best that succeed, and you never know how things unfold. Someone else may take on an injury at a critical time, so that’s why you play and I thought at the end of last year, I felt very good about the way we were playing and I thought we had a chance against anybody, and unfortunately at the end, we lost a couple guys in the playoffs that I would have loved to have had, but that’s the way it works sometimes. So you never know.
“At this level, I think the important thing is to understand what goes into winning and try not to get wrapped up in all that stuff,” Thibodeau continued. “I think my first year, people said we would be a 45-win team, so it doesn’t mean anything. If they said we were going to be a 70-win team, that wouldn’t mean anything either. You’ve got to put in the necessary work that needs to be done to be successful and then you take your chances in the end, and that’s the way we’re going to approach it. That’s the way we have to approach it.”
Some of the coach’s mentality may have been shaped by a formative experience in his coaching career. In the 1999 playoffs, the Knicks — he was an assistant coach under current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy — were the eighth seed in the postseason and without their best player, Hall-of-Fame center Patrick Ewing, advanced all the way to the NBA Finals, where they fell against a San Antonio team led by David Robinson and a young Tim Duncan.
“I coached in New York when we were an eighth seed and made it to the Finals, so you do the best you can each and every day,” Thibodeau said. “There will be some things that develop along the way, some guys are going to step up. But I have a lot of confidence about our team. These guys are serious about the way they approach things, they play as a team. I think we’ll continue to improve, and we’ll see how it unfolds.”
Also of note, the East appears to be weaker than expected, with only Miami and Indiana distinguishing themselves as elite teams in the season’s early going. While Thibodeau argued that injuries to key players for Brooklyn and New York — Andrei Kirilenko for the Nets and Tyson Chandler for the New York, two defensive-minded veterans — stand out, it can’t be denied that those high-payroll teams are underachieving, not to mention have chemistry issues.
“There’s a lot of basketball to be played,” Thibodeau said. “I think sometimes when you dig deeper into records and things — you could look at New York, you could look at Brooklyn and they’ve had a lot of injuries — and sometimes when you look, you combine the injuries with heavy road schedules or some tough opponents at home.”
That might be true, but when it comes to overcoming adversity, it’s also fair to say that the Bulls are experts at it compared to the competition.