Due to his obsession with the game of basketball, it's unlikely that Tom Thibodeau has time for off-court interests such as gambling, but Thursday night, the Bulls head coach bet on himself. Actually, as a point of clarification, he bet on the culture that he not only espouses to the media on a daily basis, but that he's ingrained in his first-place team.
Why else would he have take on the risky move of benching reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, the present and future of the franchise, for more than an entire quarter's worth of action, then putting him back in late in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's Bulls' overtime win over the Heat because, in his words, "C.J. needed a break"? No offense to Watson, who's established himself as one of the league's better backup point guards this season, as well as a more than capable fill-in starter during Rose's absences this season, but -- going back to the gambling analogy -- those sound like the words of a man who isn't playing with a full deck.
Unless, of course, that man is Thibodeau, who, with apologies to San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, should have put a stranglehold on league Coach of the Year honors, which would give him unprecedented back-to-back awards in his first two seasons as an NBA head coach. Say what you want about Thibodeau, but at least he isn't just paying lip service to the team-first concept he consistently drills into the heads of his players and media alike.
"Derricks been out for so long. He did some good things, too," he explained about his superstar, who shot 1-for-13 after returning from a one-game hiatus due to an ankle sprain. "We knew that would be the case and hes done fine in practice. Theres not a lot of contact in practice, so you dont know what the conditioning component will be until you get into the game and again, there were some things he did very well. Hes a little rusty, but again, thats to be expected. He didnt knock down shots that he normally makes, but I thought for a first time back after an extended time off, I thought he was fine and itll only get better.
"C.J. needed a break. Otherwise, he would have finished it out and at that point, I was also thinking that Derrick had been out for an extended amount of time, so it was a tough call, but he did fine," continued Thibodeau, "Big picture, in terms of if this was his first or second year, maybe you would be more concerned with that, but where Derrick is now as a player, he understands the situation. Hes coming off an injury, hes a very confident guy, hell get up to speed very quickly and the thing that you love about him, he was so happy we won, and happy for his teammates, and thats who Derrick is."
Indeed, after the game, Rose was nothing about positive about the situation. Regardless of how poorly he performed, a player of his caliber has to have some ego to get to the level he's at, but Rose, the definition of humility, took his benching in stride, knowing that the move likely won the game for the Bulls, as Watson sent the game into overtime on his three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in regulation, as well as playing an outstanding floor game for the entire evening.
"I'm just trying to get my rhythm back. I've had worse games than this. I'm just happy we got the win. Just happy we got the win. That's the only thing that matters to me," Rose said afterwards. "C.J., along with everybody off the bench, they played a great game and that's the reason why we won.
"If I saw this, I wouldn't have played. I thought I was going to come out and do all right," he continued, joking. "I'm fine, man. You know me. Anything to win. If that lineup was going to win the game, we won the game and I can't complain about anything."
Remember, this is a young man who routinely put up pedestrian scoring numbers while playing in high school at Simeon Career Academy, yet won back-to-back state titles and again sacrificed statistics in his lone college season at Memphis, where the John Calipari-coached team made it to the national-title game, and only in the NBA has he had to truly dominate as a point producer to reap the benefits of winning, so his natural correlation is, as he mentioned, "anything to win," meaning that, especially in his rusty state, the damage done to his pride is minimal and his subpar outing, not the fact that he wasn't playing when the game still hung in the balance, will stick with him more. In actuality, there was no pedestal to knock Rose off, at least not in the Bulls' locker room, but for the rest of the roster to see that Thibodeau isn't beyond sitting the team's unquestioned star makes it hard for others to pout when their number isn't called.
On a squad that firmly believes that this is their time, their season, their chance to win it all, that mentality is all-important and sacrificing for each other means more to them than any individual accolades. This was simply Rose's turn, in the midst of an injury-riddled campaign, one in which his mother muttered, "This child hasn't been hurt this much in his life," while walking down a United Center hallway, to exemplify Thibodeau's mantra of "we have more than enough to win."
Of course, having to swallow pride isn't just limited to Rose, as during Thibodeau's brief tenure in Chicago, almost the entire roster -- from Taj Gibson giving up his starting spot to Carlos Boozer when the starting power forward returned from an early-season injury last season, to Boozer famously sitting out the fourth quarter in favor of Gibson during last spring's playoff and from Rip Hamilton having to wait until Thibodeau signed off on him playing (even after he was medically cleared, then playing less minutes than the former All-Star has ever been accustomed to receiving, though not because of his conditioning, as he quipped, "I run like a racehorse") to Joakim Noah being on the sidelines for crucial stretches, including Thursday, when he was nailed to the bench from midway through the third quarter until overtime, when Gibson fouled out -- has had to deal with being idle, even after they've demonstrated their value. For instance, take Ronnie Brewer, the reserve swingman who started in Hamilton's place for much of the season, then went back to the bench and has seen inconsistent minutes with the whole team more or less fully intact.
"I don't think about that at all. Whenever my name is called, I try to go out there and play as hard as I possibly can," Brewer told CSNChicago.com. "If the minutes are there, they're there. If they're not, they're not. I can only help the team out when I'm on the court and when I'm not, I just support my teammates."
It might sound like athlete-speak, a canned answer to deflect any controversy, but even if it is, Brewer's response to a question about the Bulls' changing rotation rings true. Noah's aforementioned situation is another clear-cut example, as Thibodeau criticized the energy's player lack of energy following the disappointing Easter Sunday loss at New York and the center, speaking in an uncharacteristic monotone, added, at the end of a brief interview -- when Noah's upbeat and passionate, he's one of the league's best interviews, but when he's dejected after a loss, it's hard to get much out of him -- "I want to be out there more, too."
But following Tuesday's rematch with the Knicks, a Bulls win, he explained, " At the end of the day, everybody wants to be out there more as a player, but you have to understand that you have to sacrifice for another and sometimes you say things out of frustration. But I think that sometimes you might have a different opinion than your coach. But he's the leader and he's the one who makes the decisions, so you've got to trust him and when he makes those decisions, you've got to be ready to play when your name is called."
He had a nearly identical tone after Thursday's victory, when talking about Rose.
"Theres nothing to be upset about. When youre leaders a team-first guy, it trickles down to everybody," said Noah. "It just shows what kind of character he has and were trying to win here. It was just a great team effort."
So, the crux of it is, the team's humility, best embodied by Rose, has spread like a virus to all 14 of the Bulls, forming a rare bond between professional athletes, millionaires who are their own individual corporations and have been stars at some level prior to the NBA, if not the pro ranks, in order to achieve a common goal. While Hamilton bides his time as he waits for more minutes -- "Were just playing it by ear," he said. "Whatever Thibodeau wants me to do, Im going to do." -- Rose knows that he needs to get in gear, back to his previous form, sooner than later because although the team concept has worked on many nights when he's been absent this season, he'll need to be at his brilliant best in order for the Bulls to host their first championship parade since the owner of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats was hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.
"It's going to take a little time. Tomorrow, I'll come in, try to get my rhythm back, playing three-on-three again," he said. "I feel good. My mind's thinking some things my body can't do, but I've never had a problem getting my rhythm back.
"When you're out there, my biggest thing was trying to play aggressive, but my shots didn't fall," Rose continued. "I've had worse games than this. I think I only hit one shot, but these games right here, they'll just make me a better player, a stronger player.
"I'm not worried about my stats or anything. I'm just trying to get back out there before the playoffs start. Could I make up excuses? Yeah, but you know me. I'm not going to use an excuse. My shots weren't falling. Shots I normally hit weren't hitting. My teammates had my back and I'm happy I have them on my team."
Kyle Korver, who's currently on a hot streak -- but has been through cold stretches and had to earn Thibodeau's trust with his defense, admittedly not his strength -- put Rose's present situation in the context of the team.
"Derrick, hes missed like 30 games. Hes going to be a little rusty. I dont care who you are, youre going to be a little rusty. I wasnt really thinking about that, to be honest. When youre in the game, youre thinking, Next play,'" he said. "Derricks attitude in how he handles losses, takes the blame every time. Hes there for us and hes encouraging us. Its been a hard year for him. A hard year. Youre 23 years old, youre MVP last year and you come in, you get four, five different injuries in this crazy season with all these games. It says a lot about him and his character. Not a lot of superstars can take the criticism that he gets and play the minutes that he does, and still keep the head that he has. Hes a really humble guy, hes all about winning. Obviously he has the ball most of the time because hes the former MVP, hes a great player, but if someone else is open, hes going to pass the ball and hes just a good guy.
"Obviously other guys have had to step up. Weve tried to do that. Different nights, different guys have stepped up. Weve had to really pay attention to detail on defense and rebounding. We really have to do those things really well when Derricks out of the lineup and obviously Thibs is a coach where were going to focus on it anyway, but I think in our minds, we know we have to be so good at that," he continued. "We're in the last month, but Thibs preaches one game at a time and we all drink the Kool-Aid, we've all been brainwashed, so one game at a time. But we know there's not a lot of time left."
One guy who never has to worry about minutes, Luol Deng, chimed in: "Its going to take time. Weve got seven more games. Weve just got to be smart as a team and realize whats going on out there on the floor, using each others strengths. Those guys -- Rip, Derrick -- being the guys that just came back, weve got to do what weve got to do to get them back in rhythm and get them back comfortable, but I dont doubt that them and hopefully it wont take that long and those guys will start getting their rhythm.
"Thats been us all year and nobody will question C.J. taking that shot and even if he missed, no one would question that. Thats our basketball. Thats what we do, make smart plays and just trust in each other," he added. "Having so many guys out gave a lot of guys a chance to step up and feel comfortable in their role, instead of having all of a sudden being some hero. This is a role theyve been in all year."
From All-Stars Rose and Deng to John Lucas III -- from third-string point guard best known last season for missing clutch free throws in a loss at Denver to fan favorite due to his instant-offense heroics, including successfully dueling LeBron James the last time the Bulls beat Miami at home and back to a DNP-CD Thursday -- and rookie swingman Jimmy Butler, showing potential as a poised defensive specialist in his debut NBA campaign, the Bulls have proven that they trust each other completely, don't shy away from the big moment and relish the fact that their sum of parts is greater opposing teams' sometimes superior talent. That's the core principle of the team as a whole, but especially the "Bench Mob," the cohesive second unit that more than any individual player is the squad's MVP.
"I love the versatility of our bench because I feel that whatever is needed in the game, you can go down our bench and find it.It's a testament, also to the guys that we have and how they stay ready, and how they work. When we're at full strength, everyone will go back into their roles and if you're not in the rotation, you just have to stay ready and I think the one thing our bench has shown is that they can do that, so in some cases, guys were not in the rotation and went to starting, and handled that well. Other guys went from being in the rotation to starting and handled that well, and some guys will be going back to their normal roles, back to the bench. The luxury that we have is that we have a number of guys that can do both well and that's a big plus to have," Thibodeau explained. "I've said this all along: I think we have the right guys. We have a team that's comprised of all team-first guys. All have sacrificed something for our team and the one thing that they've shown is that they're all going to do what's best for the team first, even at the expense of maybe it's not necessarily best for their own individual game, but if it's best for our team, they're willing to do that, so it says a lot about them."
That can't be denied, but while Thibodeau's decision to sit Rose, particularly in a high-profile showdown with the rival Heat and while controversy brews about his lack of a contract extension -- if the decision backfired, it certainly wouldn't have helped his case, but like any good poker player, or even a mad scientist, Thibodeau didn't blink, believing in himself and his team -- is likely a lightning rod for debate amongst both fans and media, it was the right move in theory and practice. Perhaps Watson, Thursday's hero, summed it up best: "Our teammates, we all support each other, whether it's good or bad and that's the good thing about our team...That's why we're so successful."
That's the reason Bulls fans were camping out outside the United Center in Friday's early-morning hours, following the exhilarating win Thursday, to buy playoff tickets as soon as they went on sale later that morning. Because they, like the team itself, know that there's something special happening on Madison St. and whether Rose or any other player is healthy or on the court at any given time, there's always a chance, due to Thibodeau's unbending philosophy, which once again proved itself to be true, in the most unthinkable fashion.