Tom Thibodeau made his long-awaited return to the United Center on Friday, and the reception he received from the Chicago crowd pleased USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Thibodeau, who's been an assistant with USA Basketball since 2013, was the first coach introduced before the team's matchup against Venezuela and received considerable applause from the sellout crowd. It was Thibodeau's first visit back to Chicago in a coaching capacity since he was fired as the Bulls head coach following the 2014-15 season.
Both Krzyzewski and Jimmy Butler, who spoke at the podium following USA's 80-45 victory, were asked about the reaction from the crowd. Krzyzewski, a Chicago native, took the question and fired off a 90-second response about how the warm reception was warranted and how pleased he was to hear it.
He even joked that he and assistants Jim Boeheim and Monty Williams paid 5,000 fans to cheer when Thibodeau, now the head coach of the Timberwolves, was introduced.
"(Chicago's) an amazing sports town, loves its athletes and its coaches, and they should love Tom. Tom brought great basketball (to Chicago) when it was not going well," Krzyzewski said. "And then really injury-wise...especially with Derrick (Rose), if he had been healthy there could have been another (NBA championship) banner or two here. And the fans realize that."
Thibodeau arrived in Chicago in 2010, coaching a Bulls team that had advanced to the playoffs the previous season for the first time since 1998. He coached the Bulls to a 255-139 record in five seasons and won 23 playoff games. His team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, the same year the Bulls won 62 games and Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year.
In that five-year span Rose, who was named the league's youngest MVP in 2011, missed 213 of a possible 394 games, and the team dealt with myriad injuries to key players in Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Irreconcilable differences within the front office led to Thibodaeu's dismissal, but Thibodeau said Thursday that he was grateful for the eperiences he had during this time in Chicago.
And Krzyzewski reiterated how pleased he was that the fans understood the successes Thibodeau acheived.
"He’s the best, as far as preparation and team player and whatever, and the fans appreciate that," Krzyzewski said. "It was great. I love the fact that my town gave the guy who gave them his heart and soul for the number of years he’s been here and acknowledged that. That’s a great thing. I’m proud of my city for doing that."
For more than six and a half minutes in the second quarter of Friday night’s exhibition game against Venezuela, the United States men’s national team looked lost.
The prohibitive favorite in the Rio Olympics missed 13 consecutive shots, committed two turnovers and was called for a shot clock violation, an almost unimaginable infraction considering the level of talent across the board on the floor.
The offense remained stagnant much of the night, a rare occurrence for a team that had looked unstoppable in averaging 108 points in their first three contests. But in their 80-45 thumping of Venezuela, Mike Krzyzewski’s group proved it has more ways to win a game than simply outshooting its opponent.
A combination of tenacious rebounding and determined defense allowed the Americans to move to 4-0 in exhibition play in their second-to-last tune-up before next month’s Olympic Games, where they’ll attempt to three-peat as gold medal winners.
“Two of the consistent parts of the game we did great with tonight, and that is you can play really good defense and you can rebound every night,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Because it’s about effort. And our guys have given that effort.”
Playing without their top player, Nets point guard Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela hung around in the first quarter thanks in part to Team USA’s cold shooting. They even took a 12-10 lead on back-to-back triples from John Cox, who finished with a team-high 14 points. The Americans opened the game 3-for-10 before finishing the quarter on a 12-2 run. Kyrie Irving was the lone starter to shoot better than 50 percent (4-for-7); the other four starters combined to shoot just 8-for-31 (25.8 percent).
And yet during their dry spell in the second quarter, which included five scattered free throws, Team USA was able to increase its lead from 13 to 14 with stifling defense and stellar rebounding; in that same span Venezuela committed two turnovers and missed nine of 11 field goal attempts, with only one offensive rebound to show for it.
“We played great defense. We didn’t score but they didn’t score,” said Kevin Durant, who finished 3-for-9 with nine points. “That’s the name of the game for us. If we don’t score we can’t let the other team score. It’s simple.”
Venezuela shot just 24 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Cox, the cousin of Kobe Bryant, said the Americans' ability to switch at each position made each possession difficult.
"They’re so good because they can switch everything because of their length and athleticism. So I don’t think there’s another team in the Olympics that can do that," he said. "It’s difficult to take advantage on offense, and they’re talented and they’re going to be tough to beat because they switch down the line. Even their bigs can move their feet with our guards and other guards, so they’ll be a tough matchup. And that’s why they’re special."
The Americans were also helped in the defensive struggle by superb rebounding across the board. DeMarcus Cousins finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, Carmelo Anthony added nine of his own and Jimmy Butler, playing in front of a home Chicago crowd, snatched eight boards. Team USA won the battle of the boards, 54-29, outperforming the +21 rebounding advantage they had amassed in their first three games.
“You get 54 rebounds and we’re playing defense right to the very end, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Krzyzewski said. “The fact that the ball was not going in and they were playing very good defense against us does not stop us from giving a really quality effort, especially on the board and the defensive end.”
Team USA flipped the switch in the second half, with the bench unit beginning the third quarter on a 12-4 run that pushed the lead to 26 points. The Americans then made 10 of 12 shots in the final stanza posting 24 points on an array of outside shots – Klay Thompson connected on a pair of triples – and highlight reel dunks from DeAndre Jordan and DeMar DeRozan.
Team USA finished the contest shooting 43 percent from the field, nearly seven percentage points worse than their team average entering the contest. Their four made 3-pointers, three of which came from Thompson, were a far cry from the 39 they connected on in their first three games.
But their ability to shoot out of character for 40 minutes – the 80 points were tied for the second fewest for an Olympic team under Coach K – and still win handily was a positive sign for Krzyzewski.
Eight of Team USA’s 13 players averaged 20 or more point per game last season – Paul George rested with a sore calf. And its two returning players from the 2012 team, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, have five NBA scoring titles to their name. They’ve also got four players who have won NBA titles while playing for historically good offenses (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Thompson for Golden State; Kyrie Irving for Cleveland).
“We’re gonna knock shots down. We’ve got the best players in the world, the best shooters in the world, best penetrators in the world,” Durant said. “Shots don’t really matter to us. We played great defense and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole trip.”
There’s little doubt they’ll find their shooting touch in time for their opening round game on Aug. 6 against China. Krzyzewski even hinted at the team needing to find more comfort and rhythm using the international basketball, though he was quick to denounce that as an excuse for the poor shooting.
After breezing through three exhibition games, winning by 37, 49 and 50 points, the Americans were forced to work in a different fashion for their victory Friday night. The final margin, 35, wasn’t indicative of the effort Team USA needed to show in order to pull away. They did show that effort, and it’s something that will serve them well moving forward when the games count.
“To be quite frank I’m very pleased about tonight,” Krzyzewski said, “because you don’t just want to hit 17 threes and not work hard.
"We had to work real hard tonight and we won.”
When Dwyane Wade’s re-signing with the Miami Heat went from a forgone conclusion to a question mark, the Chicago Bulls and Jimmy Butler got involved in a whirlwind courtship that resulted in Friday's all-smiles press conference.
The Bulls came with the tangibles, the respect in the form of $47 million. Butler came with the intangibles—and respect as the two had critical conversations that lead to Wade finally making the leap to trek back home to Chicago after 13 years on the beach.
It was why Wade was so comfortable at his own introductory news conference to cede the spotlight to Butler Friday afternoon, the savvy veteran understanding Butler was in attendance and giving Butler the affirmation he quietly craved in front of a national TV audience.
“Jimmy Butler, everybody! Jimmy, you gonna come out with your muscles out and everything, though? You got oil on...,” Wade said jokingly, motioning to Butler as Butler stood amongst many to the side, having just finished an on-court workout with his trainer.
Wade was reciprocating what Butler had initiated during free agency during those conversations, as the only question there is to be answered is how the two will mesh on the floor as opposed to the assumption of clashing personalities.
“Just what we can do if we were to play basketball together. I said look man, I’m okay with whatever role you want me to play,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com in an exclusive interview after Team USA beat Venezuela 80-45 Friday at the United Center, with Wade sitting next to Team USA’s bench. “But we can win games if you’re here with us. So that’s basically how it went.
“I was telling him, of all the things that have been said, I’m here to win. I don’t care what role I’m supposed to play, whose team it is, you come here, we’ll win games.”
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Free agent acquisitions Wade and Rajon Rondo have openly said Butler is the first name on the basketball masthead, but Butler has termed them “the three Alphas”. Regardless of what Butler has said before publicly about not being concerned with his standing in the locker room of the Chicago Bulls, he’s feeling more and more comfortable with the position of leadership—perhaps emboldened by the validation of the two.
“Outside of all of that, all anybody wants is to be wanted,” Butler said. “He wants me to step up and lead. He wants this to be my team. Just like I wanted him for my team. That mutual respect, us being honest with each other like that, that’s where it starts. That’s the foundation.”
Establishing a pecking order is easier when the players who see this version of Jimmy Butler only know this version of Butler. The player who has evolved into an All-Star and Olympian, not necessarily the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Both attributes are true, but there’s something to be said about initial impressions and how they stick.
“Moving forward, I’m gonna do my best, whatever it takes to help us win games,” Butler said. “I don’t think people understand how serious I am when I say I want to (freaking) win a championship. I’m not playing.”
Rondo and Wade have the championship receipts, so it’s unlikely they’ll allow Butler to go unchecked if his methods aren’t parallel with his words. Given the appointed title Butler gave the three, it doesn’t sound like they would let him slide regardless.
“That’s what I wanted him here, that’s why I wanted Rondo here,” Butler said. “Because they’ve done it, they know what it takes. I want them to show me. If I’m not listening, make me listen.”
When told he could be bullheaded and stubborn, Butler agreed.
“I agree, I can (be). Fine. It only makes me better,” Butler said. “If you’re on my tail all the time it only makes me better. I want that. I like that. If I’m (messing) around, you tell me, you let me know, you’re better than that. You’re right. I’m gonna respond in a positive manner and I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Butler used a lot of “my team” and “my guys” but one can surmise it’s less about ownership and possessiveness compared to investment—the sweat equity that earns his respect and admiration more than any single attribute.
“I respect a lot of things but I think your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said. “I’m a firm believer in that. I’m successful because of that. I just put in the time. I know these guys put in the time.”
“I respect that s**t. I’m going to war with you everyday when I know in my heart that your best interest is to help us win. I’m all about that.”
Whether Butler felt some of his old teammates were moving all tides in the same direction, he wouldn’t say—and the former Bulls probably wouldn’t on elaborate on their feelings, either.
“I think man, it was a lot of mixes of everything,” he said. “We weren’t winning games we wanted to win. We were in and out the lineup, so many guys.
“I don’t wanna use any excuses but that had something to do with it. We have a whole new team, we gotta move forward. I’m happy for those new guys, I want them to be successful on their new team.”
But he admits last season was one to learn from, and falls back on the work that he hopes will lead to others following willingly.
“You grow. You learn. You grow. I’m six years into this thing,” Butler said. “I’ve made a name for myself. I’ve done a lot with basketball since I started. I think I’m only gonna start to get better. I pray I only continue to get better because I do work. I really do work.”