During the regular season, Kirk Hinrich didn't always resemble the "Captain Kirk" fans in Chicago had become accustomed to during his first Bulls stint.
Prone to injury and not a consistent offensive threat, it appeared that Hinrich had regressed due to age and while he was a steady floor general, tough defender and led the team with his quiet leadership, he wasn't an impact player-at least not judging by the box score-on a nightly basis.
But though it still wasn't always reflected in his statistics, Hinrich's value became clear to astute observers as the campaign went on-the Bulls were markedly better when he was in the lineup, getting primary scorers like Carlos Boozer and All-Star Luol Deng involved-in the first four games of the postseason, the veteran point guard is once again making his presence felt in both subtle and obvious ways.
"Unbelievable," gushed Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, an ardent Hinrich supporter. "You've got one of the toughest covers in the league in Deron Williams. Deron Williams, it's not only the pick-and-rolls. It's transition, it's catch-and-shoot, it's the post, it's his cutting and he's in constant motion, so you're getting hit with 100 screens, minimum, and he gets around them, over them, through them and that being said, it's his demeanor, too. Deron Williams has the ability to make. You can defend him great and he can still make, but to come back and do it the next time, again and again and again.
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"That shows his toughness. But more importantly, the way he runs the team. Everyone gets in rhythm, he sets the tone on the ball with his defense, he's a great leader, great teammate, plays to win."
Teammate Carlos Boozer chimed in: "Don't underestimate the game that Kirk Hinrich played tonight. Kirk did a hell of a job. He's guarding their best player in D-Will, playing 60 minutes, scored the ball for us when he had to, got everyone involved when he had to, played amazing defense. Don't underestimate what he did tonight. "
Beyond Hinrich's pesky and determined defense against Williams, considered one of the elite point guards in the league-after being held to a pair of subpar outings in Games 2 and 3, Williams went for 32 points and 10 assists in Saturday afternoon's Game 4, but Hinrich made him work for every single point-he's also asserted himself offensively.
In the Bulls' 142-134 triple-overtime win at the United Center, Hinrich finished with 18 points and 14 assists in a remarkable 60 minutes of play, tying a Bulls' playoff record, set by John Salmons back in 2009, a game that Hinrich also participated in.
"I suppose it's similar. I was younger then," Hinrich said when asked to compare it to the epic triple-overtime game against the Celtics, featuring Thibodeau as a Boston assistant coach. "It was one of those games that you'll probably be talking about for a while like the Boston series was such a great series. We're just thrilled to get the win. To get the win in a game like this is huge.
"It was grueling. We were able to make that late push in the fourth. Nate came in and was huge, Nazr was huge. It was a total team effort tonight," he continued. "We were having trouble stopping them and they were having trouble stopping us. Three overtimes later, you finally get a winner."
Hinrich focused on his scoring in the first half, keeping pressure on Williams on both ends of the floor, but as Nate Robinson got the hot hand, he changed his approach to playmaking.
A key decision for Thibodeau was deciding whether or not to keep Hinrich in the game after the point guard picked up his fifth foul with 5:39 left to play in regulation.
Thibodeau decided to trust Hinrich and his faith was rewarded.
"Well, the thing is, with the Williams matchup, I was concerned about that," said Thibodeau. "At that stage, you're taking your chances."
It's less of a gamble with Hinrich on the floor.