NEW YORK—Not that he hasn’t been preaching the same message since the beginning of training camp, it seems, but ask Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau why his team played so well in Wednesday’s 95-78 Christmas Day matinee win over the Nets at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and his answer is almost predictable: “You can’t play well in this league without practicing."
Don’t get him started about practice, especially with the Bulls’ myriad injuries and various players in and out of the lineup. Oops, too late.
“I think the teams that win big, they go hard. They practice hard, they get themselves ready, they build rhythm. It’s cohesion and it’s how you practice, too. It’s not just practice, but it’s how you practice,” the coach explained. “When you get into a game, everything is done with great intensity and so, I think it’s important to obviously try to practice like that, so when you’re in a game and making those decisions, you understand how you’re going to have to make those decisions. It’s not an individual sport, where you’re just worried about yourself. It’s you in unison with four other guys, moving on the flight of the ball and that’s not just defensively.
“That’s offensively, as well. Offense is timing and spacing, so everyone has to be tied together. Your defense, the same thing. If one guy’s not there, particularly anytime you put two on the ball, if that weak side doesn’t react at the appropriate time, you’re giving up a layup or a wide-open three and the only way you get that is through practice. Build the right habits and for us, the challenge becomes building the right habits each and every day, and hopefully in the end, we can be healthy, playing our best and that’s what every team strives for,” he continued. “Same thing with Joakim. Joakim missed all of training camp, so the first month was a struggle. So now, he’s got good rhythm. The last three or four weeks, he’s got great rhythm and his defense has always been there, but his offensive rhythm is there because he’s playing every day. He’s practicing every day. That’s how you get rhythm and then, you need your entire team to build that rhythm. It’s funny. When you watch teams, the teams that are on top, I can tell the teams that are practicing hard and are healthy. It’s reflected in how they play.”
Now, it’s clear that the Bulls’ play improved with practice, yes, but also getting Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler back, as well as having some rest after a rough stretch in the schedule earlier in December that didn’t allow for much of a break. But ask a Bulls player what was the most significant thing leading up to the blowout victory and while they’ll agree that practice helped the effort, the general opinion is a bit different than Thibodeau’s.
“More than that, it’s rest for guys that are injured to let their body recuperate,” Butler said, pointing out the obvious. “They can get back in the lineup and be all right.”
Regardless, the Bulls have been clicking in their last two outings, big wins over Cleveland and Brooklyn, respectively, building a bit of momentum before the change of a new calendar year, with some downtime in between games, to boot. Here, players and coach can agree.
“It’s coming around,” Thibodeau allowed. “It’s good to get guys back.”
“We want to win as many games as possible, but I feel like this is a big one for us and we’re starting to string them together,” Butler said. “We’re tough. We’re really hard to beat when we’re guarding and we’re executing, and, making shots and not even if we’re making them, just taking the right ones. I feel like everybody knows we can win these games, especially when we’re locking up on defense and rebounding.
“Just keep going. Keep working, don’t settle and continue to play extremely hard.”
Whether it’s in practice or in games.