Tom Thibodeau isn’t one to let his team feel sorry for itself, even after a painful triple-overtime loss at home just two days prior. And part of that reason is because he and the Bulls understand the test coming their way tomorrow, when LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat arrive in Chicago.
The Bulls have lost six of seven and will be without Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Mike James on Thursday night, but Thibodeau said his team has been able to use the recent struggles as teaching moments for a group that is adjusting on the go without a pair of their key contributors.
“We’re moving in the right direction and I think our guys have played extremely hard and we’ve had some tough, close-fought games that have not gone our way,” Thibodeau said. “And I think there’s a good lesson to be learned there. The difference between winning and losing is very small, so we have to put as many things in our favor as possible and we have to build winning habits.”
That won’t come easily against the Heat, who saw their 10-game winning streak end Tuesday against the Detroit Pistons – ironically the only team the Bulls have defeated in their current slide – but enter with the second best record in the Eastern Conference at 14-4.
“They’re a great team, well balanced, very well-coached,” Thibodeau said. “They play to their strengths, they cover up their weaknesses. They attack on offense, they’re great defensively so you have to play 48 minutes against them. They don’t beat themselves.”
And though Joakim Noah coyly smiled and said “no” when asked if he ever takes a step back and objectively watches LeBron James, the 6-foot-11 center admitted the four-time MVP has his team playing at a championship level.
“They’re playing at a very high level; they’re very good. I know (Michael) Beasley’s been playing a lot more, they’re spreading the court even more.,” Noah said. “They’re a very talented team.”
Thibodeau went further into his analysis of James’ play, lauding the game’s best player as someone who can do everything on the court and makes life difficult each night for the opponent.
“The numbers are staggering, when you look at a guy who’s shooting almost 60 percent and he plays every game, he doesn’t sit out, he’s a throwback. He practices, he plays, plays big minutes, he handles the ball, plays off the ball, he defends, he guards the best player,” Thibodeau listed off. “It says a lot about him. And the biggest thing, it also says how each year he’s gotten better. And that’s a testament to his will to win and his drive, so we give him a lot of credit.”
The question of whether or not James, 28, can be considered one of the all-time greats will be an ongoing debate – especially in Chicago – for as long as he plays, but Thibodeau said the answer will only come when James is retired.
“You base it on what he’s done already, but I don’t think you can really judge a player until he’s done. Then you have debates about where he ranks among the greatest, but he’s certainly gotten off to a great start,” he said. “What he’s accomplished speaks for itself.”
For most teams, competing against the defending champs coming off a loss wouldn’t be best-case scenario. But the Bulls have played James and the Heat well, especially shorthanded, and Thibodeau said it’s only natural that his team is excited and motivated both to take down the champions and get back in the win column.
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“They’re the two-time defending champion, so everyone is chasing them,” he acknowledged. “I think when you win it that’s what happens. You have to be ready, you know you have to play a great game against them, and for us the way for us to succeed right now is we have to play with great intensity. When you’re shorthanded, that’s the way you have to play.”