MIAMI—Informed that he finished eighth in the NBA’s Coach of the Year award balloting—as if he didn’t know already—Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau offered a terse “no” before his team’s shootaround Wednesday morning at American Airlines Arena, in advance of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But while he praised award winner George Karl of Denver, who was certainly a deserving recipient based on the Nuggets’ regular season, at this stage of the playoffs, it’s clear to anyone with eyes that Thibodeau has done the finest job of any coach in the league this season.
Who knows what will happen in Wednesday night’s game or how the Bulls will fare in the rest of the second-round series against the defending-champion Heat, but even before Monday’s stunning Game 1 victory, the coaching magic Thibodeau has worked during this injury-riddled campaign perhaps eclipses even his debut season as a head coach, in which he led the Bulls to the conference finals, enjoyed the first of back-to-back years with the NBA’s most regular-season victories and was named Coach of the Year.
Forget the injuries the Bulls have endured, forget Derrick Rose’s season-long absence, forget the fact that virtually the entire bench was replaced by newcomers.
The most brilliant part of what Thibodeau has done in Chicago is install a culture of toughness, preparation and no excuses, as the sign in the Bulls’ locker room at the United Center reads.
“He’s a good coach who does a great job of preparing us, blocking out any distractions or excuses,” said All-Star center Joakim Noah, who might not always have the mentality Thibodeau prefers, but at his core, is motivated by the same thing: winning. “Thibs is a pretty intense guy. He’s always ready. He’s always prepared. He’s always going at 150 percent. There’s no denying the guy wants to win really bad.”
Kirk Hinrich, who missed out on crossing paths with Thibodeau by weeks during his initial Bulls stint, but immediately fit in as the coach’s type of player, concurred: “He’s a good coach who does a great job of preparing us, blocking out any distractions or excuses. “
This is why, after a grueling seven-game opening-round series with Brooklyn, in which bodies were dropping like flies, the Bulls had the intestinal fortitude to come into Miami and pull off a jaw-dropping upset against the well-rested Heat.
“People who watch games from their couch and their assumptions don't really mean much to me,” Noah said. “People who play the game, played the game, their opinions are probably a little more valid.”
Jimmy Butler, who has thrived in his second season and possesses the necessary attributes to succeed in Thibodeau’s system, added: “I feel like our team, the character, we believe that we have it. It’s all about being tough and we take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams.”
Thibodeau eschews praise, preferring to insulate himself with a laser-like focus on the task at hand and although he’s certainly conscious of what’s being said about his squad—all those hours watching film and you really think the man doesn’t read up on what’s going on around the league, let alone opinions about the Bulls?—and while his now-familiar mantras can become wearying over the course of the regular season, as they are both evident and effective in the postseason, there’s no snickering or eye-rolling when he espouses them.
“The outside shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t. The only thing that matters really is what we think, so whether it’s praise or criticism from the outside, that’s not important. It’s what we think on the inside, so we know if we do the right things that go into winning, we’re going to have a chance to win and that’s all we want to focus in on,” he explained. “All the other stuff I think just gets you distracted. We have to stay locked into what you’re supposed to do. Get out there, do your job. Don’t caught up into all the hype. Just stay focused.
“There’s no magic to it. You have to put the work into winning and if you do that, you can put yourself into position to win. There’s five things we always talk about to try to get established in every game and you guys have heard it a ton from me,” Thibodeau went on to say. “It’s the defense, the rebounding, low turnover, inside-out, share the ball. We do that and everyone does their job, we feel we’re going to have a chance to win, no matter where we are, no matter who we’re playing against and the challenge is to come out with the right mindset, to attack, be ready, concentrate and give maximum effort, and we need everybody.”
The tough practices, heavy minute totals and unflinchingly disciplined approach can be taxing on his players, but as they reap the rewards in the form of new contracts, improved games and most of all, winning, it’s easy to see why the implicitly trust the man.
“It starts out with Thibs. Thibs is the guru,” Taj Gibson explained. “At times, we feel totally prepared. It’s just about us doing our jobs.
“He watches so much film and he knows what’s going to happen, and he knows matchups,” continued the big man, a recipient of a long-term contract extension when the season began, which was partially due to Thibodeau’s hands-on tutelage. “Most of our core guys have been together almost four years, three years, so we understand what it takes and we’ve got guys who just adapt to the system, and it’s the second round of the playoffs. We understand that big runs come. Guys don’t panic. Guys just understand. Just stay with it, don’t let the crowd get involved and we just run our game plan, and guys just make big-time shots. That’s the key, guys just stepping up whenever their name is called, no matter who it is and whenever it’s needed, they just do their job.
“It basically makes our job easier. We don’t really care what the outside world thinks. We just worry about what the locker room thinks. Like Thibs says, ‘Everybody’s going to write you off. Just go out there and do your job.’ It makes your job easier. Everybody already thinks you’re going to lose, so just go out there and play hard. What else can you lose?”
As much as he can look like a madman on the sidelines—a bundle of nervous energy, screaming at referees, exhorting his players—there’s a method to Thibodeau’s madness, based not only on his unparalleled preparation, but the knowledge that over his long career as an NBA assistant, he’s seen it all.
Take Monday’s win.
To the naked eye, Thibodeau must have looked like his usual manic self, but his players tell a different story of his demeanor in the huddle in the emotionally-charged game.
“What I like about [Monday], he didn’t panic and he didn’t kind of overthink things. He just told us to calm down, run the offense, get good looks and guys just flourished. He didn’t shy away from anybody. He just told guys to be aggressive, ‘don’t worry about it, we’re going to keep going, dig down, believe in yourself,’ and that’s what we kept doing. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. He understood what we need to do. We understand that we’ve played this team many times and he just said, ‘Just run the offense,’ and he just drew up great plays,” Gibson said. “He had me guarding Ray Allen. That’s how much confidence he really has in everybody’s ability to guard on defense, so he just really knew what the team was going to do. Every time they ran down and ran offense, it was exactly what Thibs showed us on paper.
“Everybody that comes on this team understands it right away because we’ve got guys that are real blue collar, understand the hard work we put in. We’re not really a flashy kind of team. We’d rather just go out there and do our job and guys just understand,” he went on to say. “Everybody plays with heart and we’re no strangers to guys just going up and doing their job.”
Noah chimed in: “Jo: I’m just really proud to be a part of this team. We’ve faced adversity all year. It’s not fun to watch but it’s fun when you watch the guys play like that.”
Of course, not one to hang on to even the most thrilling wins for too long, the man who is rapidly challenging San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and close friend Doc Rivers of the Celtics as the league’s best coach—awards don’t define that definition, as Phil Jackson can attest to—isn’t basking in the glory, as there’s still work to be done.
“Well, the thing is, I think you have to look at what goes into winning and I think our guys did a good job with that, but as I said [Monday], it was one win,” Thibodeau said. “There are a lot of things that we have to correct and we have to do better, and we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did in that game to be ready for Game 2.”
To quote another one of his frequently-uttered mottos, “don’t look ahead, don’t look behind.”