DENVER — While some observers have been critical of first-year Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw in his initial foray replacing the ousted George Karl — who last season led the franchise to its most successful campaign in history before a first-round playoff exit — Bulls counterpart Tom Thibodeau isn’t among them.
“Look, Brian is well prepared for this job. He’s worked for Phil Jackson for a long time, he worked for Frank [Vogel], he had a great career as a player, I think he has a great understanding of the game. He’s got his own beliefs and I think the one thing about him is he’ll be true to himself. You do see a little bit of Indiana, you see a little bit of the Lakers, and I think you see a little bit of what they did here in the past. This is a franchise that has had a lot of success. He’ll put his mark on it. I think he’s a hell of a coach,” the Bulls head coach explained before his team fell to the Nuggets, 97-87, Thursday night at the Pepsi Center. “You need to be well-balanced. You need to make easy baskets, you need to score in the half-court. I think you need to be great defensively, need to rebound the ball, have to play as a team, so I think this is a team that has quality players.
“You want to build your identity. It’s something you work at every day, and you strive for improvement. You have to build your foundation first and you can add layers onto it once guys get comfortable and they understand what you’re trying to get done. They play hard and they play together. They’ve always done that,” he continued, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come without even knowing it. “You have to be ready because of the type of points they can put up on the board. A lot is always made of being in Denver, but I think the fact that they have good players is why they’re good. We know they have a lot of guys that can go off the dribble. I think their big guys are very athletic and tough inside, and they have quality depth. When you have a guy like Andre Miller coming off the bench, and a Nate Robinson, that tells you you’re pretty deep. [Evan] Fournier is really developing into a very nice player. We know how good they are.”
After the contest, in which his team shot only 38.8 percent from the field and got 21 bench points, compared to Denver’s 45.2 percent and 49, respectively, Thibodeau’s notions about the Nuggets’ talent proved to be true, though they were aided by uncharacteristically poor Bulls’ defense.
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“We got hurt with some dribble penetration. We lost Nate [Robinson] a couple times and it gave them a cushion, and they got away from us and then we had to fight to try to get back in it,” Thibodeau said. “I didn’t like the way we started defensively in the first quarter. I thought the offense was really good. Second quarter, we hit a bit of a lull. Third quarter, not so good, and then we fought back and could have crawled back into it, but we had a couple mistakes we’ve got to correct.
“Our turnovers hurt us some, but the big thing is I thought we gave them some easy scoring opportunities, too. We should have been able to count on our defense more than we did.”
His players had similar sentiments about how the night went.
“We didn’t play our normal style of defense and certain players off their bench kind of hit some tough shots. Nate hit a couple of tough threes late. It was tough,” said Taj Gibson, who was ejected near the end of the affair. “It starts with our defense first. In free games where nobody really plays D, it’s really rough on us because you kind of lose focus on our defensive side. When we get stops it kind of gets us in the right rhythm. It gets guys good looks and we hit shots. But I just felt like guys had great looks. With this rim tonight, it was real frisky tonight. It was a tough rim. We got great looks at the basket. It just wasn’t dropping.”
Derrick Rose chimed in: “Individually, we tried to do things and it wasn’t working. But if anything, we can learn from this, come out and when we’re playing against a team like this, we’ve got to be disciplined and get back in transition because they’re a team where anybody can shoot any random shot, and some of the guys that were off the bench came in and produced big for them.
“In the first half, we were communicating. Even if I was sticking Ty, whoever was right there had to pick him up. In the second half, we weren’t communicating and guys were getting wide-open shots and with that team like that and the guys that they have on their team, the personnel on their team, if it’s in their hand, they can shoot any shot that they want,” he elaborated. “That’s when we have to turn it into a grind game. We can’t let go of the rope on the defensive end and we’ve just got to keep putting forth the effort. This is a learning game for us and I’m mad that we let this one go, but if anything, we can just learn from it.”
As for Shaw, a former NBA guard and assistant coach, but a novice head coach, some of the more difficult parts of the job, even while managing the Nuggets’ deep rotation, have surprised him.
“It’s everything I thought it would be. I think I’ve been prepared well for it. The basketball stuff, I feel real comfortable with it,” he explained. “The other obligations, dealing and talking to the media every day, just the organization of not just your coaching staff, but the training staff, and being on the same page with the media director and all those kind of requests, I don’t know if you can ever prepare enough for that. But everything, other than the fact that we’re 4-6, everything is pretty much what I expected.”
Make that 5-6, Coach.