NEW YORK—For the Bulls, this is as good as it gets.
Sure, it would be nice to have Derrick Rose make a surprise return — Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau confirmed that he’s out for Game 1 and admitted that the former league MVP is “most likely” out for the entire first-round series against the Nets prior to Saturday morning’s shootaround at John Jay College — and a completely healthy Joakim Noah wouldn’t hurt, but for a team that’s been severely undermanned for the vast majority of the regular season, having this many able bodies is almost a luxury.
“Taj was very good yesterday and then we’ll see how he’s doing. But he’s feeling a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone else is pretty good. [Vladimir Radmanovic’s] back is a problem.”
So add Radmanovic to the list, but aside from the deep reserve forward’s balky back, things are looking up for the Bulls, who are the lower seed in a playoff series for the first time during Thibodeau’s tenure. But the coach’s mindset has changed one iota.
“The same,” he said when asked about his approach. “You’ve got to be at your best. The thing that makes the playoffs different is you’re playing the same team over and over again, so you’ve got to have a lot of toughness and when you face adversity, you’ve got to be able to get through things. You’ve got to play for 48 minutes. You’ve got to play tough.
“That’s NBA basketball. That’s what you enjoy. That’s the challenge of it. But you’re playing against a great team and so, I think hard-fought competition is what I love. That’s what playoff basketball is all about,” he continued. “You play the regular season to put yourself in the best position you can, but once that’s been determined, now you’ve got to go out there and play. You’ve got to get it done between the four lines and you have to earn your wins.
“I thought we did a good job on the road this year, but this is the playoffs. We’re going to have to be ready for the start of the game, and we’re going to have to come out and be on top of our game.”
Carlos Boozer echoed his coach’s sentiments: “We’re fine, man. We did what we had to do. We played without D-Rose all season, still got a fifth seed, which is a great accomplishment. But it’s the playoffs. To advance, you’ve got to win on the road anyway, so we’re prepared for what we’re about to face and we look forward to it.
“It’s the playoffs, so we want to turn up and play better. Obviously we’re still going through a little bit of injury bugs here and there with a couple of our guys, but as a whole, we feel like we can still compete and do well.”
While many observers have picked them to beat the Nets, who have home-court advantage — it would be a stretch to call it an upset if the lower-seeded team wins — the Bulls aren’t taking their opponents for granted, despite beating Brooklyn 3-1 in the regular-season series.
“Pound for pound, it’s two great teams going at it. They’ve got great players on their side, we’ve got great players on our side. It’s going to come down to the wire, it’s going to be a great series and the first game is always the biggest game, so we’ve got to come in ready to play, bring our energy and hopefully get the job done tonight,” said Nate Robinson, familiar with New York City from his days as a Knick. “It’s going to be crazy, I know it is. They’re probably going to be wearing all black. It’s going to be a blackout probably, fans are going to be into it. It’s going to be fun, man. It’s going to be real fun. It’s going to be a crazy environment, and hopefully we can just weather the storm and get this win. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Boozer chimed in: “They’re a good team. They’re a very good team. They’ve got a great point guard in D-Will, they’ve got a very good scorer in Joe Johnson and they’ve got a great big man in Brook Lopez, and for us, we’ve just got to go do what we do. Individually do what we do and collectively do what we do.”
Predictably, Thibodeau gave a more in-depth evaluation of the Bulls’ opponent, which is a talented team, but sounded like the Bill Russell-era Celtics, as if they had no flaws.
“They’re really a good team. Avery is an excellent coach, as is PJ. I thought they had a lot of changes to their roster and then they got off to the quick start and then Lopez got hurt. When he missed those seven games, they sort of went into a little dip,” he said Friday. “But they’re an excellent team, extremely well-coached. They’re very talented. You look at Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, you’re talking three guys that are All-Stars. Joe Johnson and Deron Williams have been in a lot of big games. Their role guys are great role players and [Gerald] Wallace is more than that. He’s a heck of a player. You can’t measure him by his stats. Nor can you measure Keith Bogans nor CJ [Watson] by their stats and Reggie Evans is one of the elite rebounders in the game.
“A player like Lopez, you can’t guard him individually. Our whole team has to make him play in a crowd. Give the appropriate help. Try to establish good ball pressure. Lopez is unique because his strength and ability to get a quality shot with his back to the basket but he also has great touch facing the basket. He can put it on the floor. He’s a little deceptive. You don’t think he can go by you, but he can. It’s all set up with having great touch,” continued Thibodeau, who also cited Brooklyn’s bench, particularly talented backup center Andray Blatche, as underrated. “The challenge becomes Deron Williams and Joe Johnson off the dribble and Lopez back to the basket, the space he can create for his guards by playing away from the basket.”
Not that he’s selling short his own team, but Thibodeau is now faced with the positive dilemma of figuring out how to dole out minutes with a shooting-guard rotation that has improved health.
Jimmy Butler’s emergence has cemented him as the Bulls’ starter, which is logical because of his defensive ability and athleticism to match up with Johnson, an adept scorer with size at his position.
That move forces the Bulls to utilize erstwhile starters Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli off the bench, giving the team more offensive firepower, along with the energetic Robinson.
“We’ll see. It’s good to have flexibility. Health has been the issue with both of those guys. We have to see how things unfold,” Thibodeau said of Belinelli and Hamilton, neither of whom is on a minutes limit as the playoffs begin. “We have great flexibility there. Things changed with Jimmy. When we were shorthanded, Nate played a lot the second half of the season at the two and gave us a big lift. He and Kirk played extremely well together. So that’s another component you have to look at.”
Of course, the Bulls’ depth would even further improve with the addition of Rose, though Thibodeau acknowledged that there isn’t a strong chance the homegrown superstar returns for the series.
“It’s going to be the same. We’re not going to change that. But it’s gone this far, so we’ll see if he can improve,” he said. “Most likely out, but you never know. The playoffs are stretched out, too, so you have to factor that in. Who knows another week from now where he is, so you always want to leave that possibility open.
“Whenever he can come back, he comes back.”