Taj: We're just grinding right now
INDIANAPOLIS—The Bulls’ 93-76 win Saturday night in Atlanta won’t be the end-all or be-all of their season.
In fact, while the improbable victory, featuring a short-handed, undersized bunch playing without the services of the injured trio of starters Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich, was certainly inspiring, it will be a mere footnote at the end of the campaign.
“Well, it’s a step in the right direction. There’s still a long way to go. We’ve got to keep our concentration on improvement. There’s still a lot of things that we can do better and that’s what I want our team focused in on. We’ve got to get ready for Indiana,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said after his team dispatched the Hawks. “We’re getting closer, but we can do better and we’re going to have to do better.
“Going into every game, we always talk about our defense, our rebounding, low turnover, inside-out, share the ball. We feel like if we do that, no matter who we have or where we are, we can win, so you have to understand what goes into that and I think that takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of mental toughness and a lot of perseverance. It requires everyone to make a commitment to the team,” he continued, an evening after the Bulls gave a valiant effort, but ultimately falling to the Nets in Brooklyn in the first half of the road back-to-back. “I think the big thing was we were disappointed about the way we finished the game [Friday] night, so we wanted to do better and correct the mistakes that we made last night, but the big thing was to be ready for Atlanta [Saturday]. You can’t let [Friday’s] game carry over to this game. Come in, have great concentration in the walk-through, start the game ready, get a lead, play from a lead and then, try to play for 48 minutes. I thought we played a good game [Friday] night; we didn’t play for 48 minutes and often times, it’s one or two possessions that can change everything.”
Luol Deng, who filled the stat sheet—24 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocked shots, all while playing out of position at power forward, matched up against a formidable foe in the versatile, athletic and bigger Josh Smith—concurred: “We played great. I thought we played hard [Friday] night. We spoke before the game about how hard we played. We were happy with that, but we just told each other, ‘You play hard, but you don’t get the win, you don’t get rewarded for that,’ so we definitely wanted to play the whole game, play the whole 48 minutes. I thought [Friday] night we didn’t do that.
“It just says a lot about the group of guys that have been here, that are here. The guys that the front office bring in, the character of the guys and the core of the team, we’re good guys. None of us is really trying to demand the ball or ask for the ball. We let guys play freely and play with confidence, and all we do is just encourage each other and it builds a bond where everybody can just play their game,” the All-Star continued. “We came out with great energy, we opened the floor, guys got good shots, Nate [Robinson] did a good job of just penetrating, getting going—we needed him to get going—and everyone kind of picked it up.”
Still, beyond the squad’s precise execution—playing with a small-ball lineup and four players logging over 40 minutes at Philips Arena, the Bulls were incredibly disciplined, turning the ball over just nine times, as well as playing outstanding collective and individual defense, and winning the battle in the paint in all facets—it was their heart, determination and willingness to accept a challenge that stuck out.
“We’ve got a lot of guys injured and Thibs just knows his schemes. He knows everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, and we’re just playing to our strengths right now and we’re hiding our weaknesses,” explained Taj Gibson, who stole the show as the Bulls’ starting center, battling his way to 19 points and a career-high 19 rebounds. “We feel like we’ve got starters on the bench. Every time somebody steps down, another guy fills the void and we’ve got guys that start for us like Carlos, Joakim; they encourage us. We work hard with them every day and we’ve got good guys on our team. Nobody’s negative, nobody ever gets down on each other. Everybody’s just trying to get everybody better because we know it’s going to be big for us come late in the season. Right now, we’re just grinding, like Thibs says, and we’re just getting more and more experience top to bottom.”
Robinson, another reserve filling in a starter, who came up big, finishing with 20 points and eight assists, while blending his explosive scoring and being a floor general, added: “I know for the bench guys coming in, we’re so anxious to play, so now that our chance to get a couple minutes, more minutes than we anticipate. But we’re going to make the best of it. Guys stepping in, playing extremely hard, playing together and we’re having fun. As long as we do that, I think we’ll be okay, no matter how many minutes guys play.
“It’s not how we start the game, it’s how we finish it. Last game, we didn’t shoot that well and we came in tonight knowing that we have to get stops and get easy buckets, and we did that [Saturday].”
Thibodeau claimed that he wasn’t surprised at how the bench players, including the ever-emerging Jimmy Butler—“Jimmy, same thing. Sixteen and 10, frontline battling,” he said of the second-year swingman—because of what he witnesses at the Berto Center on a regular basis.
“I see how they work every day,” the coach said. “When someone’s called upon, they have to go out there and help the team function well. You have to put the team first. You have to sacrifice for the team and sometimes that requires you to do what’s not best for yourself, but you have to do what’s best for the team. You put the team first and you do the right things, you have a good chance to be successful.”
That isn’t to say that the Bulls’ intense preparation, spurred by Thibodeau’s hard-driving ways, is always all sunshine and flowers.
“It’s a lot. He puts so much pressure on you physically and mentally to be the best. He wants you to do everything right, for yourself and the team. We’ve got a great group of vets. We’ve got Nazr Mohammed. We had a bunch of guys come through here the last couple years and we just learn from them. We just really take advantage of all the experience that we’ve got on this team and we just keep playing to our strengths, really, and we’re just getting more confident. Nate’s a phenomenal point guard, Marco [Belinelli is] doing his job—everybody’s getting confidence right now—and it’s big for our team, especially when it gets late in the season,” Gibson said, before admitting that Thibodeau’s unrelenting tactics can grate on his players during the course of the season, though they all understand and appreciate the motivation behind them. “Sometimes. But everybody on this team is strong-minded. Everybody knows their body and we push it to a certain limit and Tom knows when to back off, and at times, he just senses it.”
It helps that, even if outside observers didn’t immediately see it, both the core group of holdovers and the newcomers believe that this season, which began with low expectations, can indeed be special, especially with the looming return of injured superstar Derrick Rose to the lineup.
“When the time comes, we’ll be ready. Right now, it’s when Derrick feels he’s ready to come back,” Gibson said. “We feel we’ll have a great shot. We can be a great team. Right now, we have to wait.
“We’ve just got do our jobs and keep getting better until he comes back. When he comes back, we’ve just got to hold it down for him,” he continued. “We’re going to keep making progress and when he comes back, we’ve just got to keep the ship moving.”
For now, they’d be fine with the respective returns of Boozer, Hinrich and Noah, but if that doesn’t occur in the near future, they won’t make any excuses for themselves, from Monday night’s tilt against the Pacers—their chief Central Division rival reportedly could get go-to scorer Danny Granger back this month—until whenever the Bulls’ entire roster is fully intact.