CHARLOTTE — Bulls head coach stayed true to his word in the regular-season finale Wednesday night, a 91-86 loss in overtime to the Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The coach said he wouldn’t cut back playing time for his players and he didn’t, evidenced by Jimmy Butler playing 47 minutes and 55 seconds in the defeat, one of three players — Mike Dunleavy Jr. and All-Star center Joakim Noah were the others — to log more than 40 minutes of action.
“Well, I just didn’t think that we needed to do that. D.J. missed a game, so I think it was important for him to get minutes. Once you start resting guys, sometimes they get out of rhythm and for us right now, I think our team is well rested,” Thibodeau explained. “We’ve been concerned with rest for a while and we’ve given our guys a lot of days off, so from the rest standpoint, I think we’re in great shape and you want the rhythm. You want to be playing well. You’ve got to be sharp.”
As for Butler, his evening foreshadowed what’s likely to come in the playoffs. The swingman insisted he was prepared for the workload.
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“I’m good. I guess I’ve got to get ready for that in the playoffs. I feel like I’m going to play a lot of minutes, so I’ve got to be able to produce — guard and produce on offense,” he said. “Before the game, [Thibodeau] was like, ‘Be prepared to win.’ He told that to everybody, so he played guys and he wanted to win the game, so all those minutes, I think it was worth it. But obviously we didn’t win.”
In fairness to Thibodeau, the Bulls are the healthiest they’ve been in years heading into the postseason, with the exception of the sidelined Derrick Rose.
“Well, we had a lot of injuries early on. Sometimes you have no control over that. I thought Jo having all the injuries he had in training camp, missed the training camp. Jimmy had his injuries early in the season. We had a lot of guys miss a lot of time early on,” he said. “That, I thought, contributed heavily to getting off to a slow start. Guys didn’t have their rhythm. I think it’s important to be as healthy as you can be going down the stretch. We had a lot of injuries, maybe more so than in any other year, at the beginning of the season.”
Bobcats’ Jefferson limited, still praised by Bulls
Charlotte star Al Jefferson, regarded as one of the best post-up scorers in the league, was held to 10 points, mostly with Noah guarding him, though he did manage to corral 18 rebounds. Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson was effusive in his praise of the big man.
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“He’s like top-five [as far as offensive big men], in my opinion. He just doesn’t get that many looks. They don’t really get that many nationally-televised games down here in Charlotte, which I think they should. He’s been dominant for a couple years now and then now, he’s got a starring role out here,” Gibson said. “But he’s really dominant. You really have to put two bigs on him at one time. He’s really scary. But I think he’s doing a great job, especially for this organization. They’ve turned it around a lot.”
Thibodeau, when asked if Jefferson or his own center, Noah, was deserving of first-team All-NBA honors, indicated that it was a toss-up.
“You guys [the media], you have tough decisions to make. You can make the case that he’s been every bit as important to their team as Jo has been to ours. Obviously I’m biased because of what Jo has done for us and it’s interesting,” the coach said. “I missed Al in Boston. He was traded for [Kevin] Garnett. But that was a very difficult trade for that organization and I know how strongly both Danny [Ainge] and Doc [Rivers] felt about him. They thought he had great talent, they said he was a great guy and ‘Cliff’ [Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford] has told me the same thing about him. So, he scores the ball so easily in so many different ways and he’s a great, great rebounder, and he plays for the team. So I thought that was a huge pickup for them. Anytime you have a big you can throw the ball into — you’re always trying to break the defense down between post-up and dribble penetration — and that goes a long way. That’s sound basketball.”
Bulls’ assistant Pinckney shares insight
Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney appeared on SiriusXM Radio’s NBA channel Wednesday afternoon, on a show hosted by former Boston Celtics teammate Rick Fox and co-host Jared Greenberg of NBA TV. Pinckney shared some insight into the Bulls’ success in Thibodeau’s system and the team’s general approach.
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“Listen, it certainly helps to have the superstars. I don’t think any coach would discount their contributions at all. But I think all the players that come on board with us for the first time, they always say, ‘It’s great playing with you guys because there’s a belief when I’m on the court on the defensive end, something is going to happen.’ There’s a belief on the offensive end that things are going to go a certain way and it’s not as random as it might be on a night-tonight basis in some other organizations, and again, I think it’s a great attribute of the guys who lead these teams, like a Popovich, like a Tom Thibodeau or a Pat Riley,” Pinckney explained. “Those guys do a great job of really mapping out what the season is going to be like on a day-to-day basis and that’s all players want. That’s exactly what they want. They want sort of clarity of what they’re going to be doing on the court. Once you have that on a night-to-night basis, it really makes things easy out on the court because you know what to expect. You know what to expect in practice, walk-through, from game to game. It doesn’t matter if you have four games in seven nights or five games in eight nights. It’s just going to be the same, no matter who’s in the game and that’s certainly what’s helped us throughout the year.
“We’ve got a number of guys who have sort of championship fiber. Carlos Boozer’s tasted it on the NCAA level, along with Mike Dunleavy, and you mentioned Noah. I think, for us, it’s a collective team effort. It has always got to be that way. Without Derrick Rose, especially in the fourth quarter, the way we execute has got to be superior to everyone we play on both ends of the floor and the entire coaching staff, we really take a lot of pride in the way that we’re prepared on a game-to-game basis,” he went on to say. “The one team that comes to mind is that Pistons team with Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, that group. They really did a good job on the defensive end, everyone had contributions on the offensive end and on any given night, it could be anyone who could score the basketball and we’re sort of similar to them.”
Lots of ties between Bulls, Bobcats
Besides the obvious — Michael Jordan, Charlotte’s owner and the Bulls’ legend — there are plenty of connections between the Bulls and Bobcats.
On the Bulls’ side of things, both D.J. Augustin and Nazr Mohammed previously played in Charlotte, with Augustin being drafted by the franchise as their 2008 first-round pick. Two players on the Bobcats also once played for the Bulls: Chicago native Jannero Pargo, the veteran reserve guard, and power forward D.J. White, who was in Bulls’ training camp and with the team in the preseason before getting waived, playing overseas in China and recently getting signed by Charlotte.
The strongest bonds between the two teams, however, are on the coaching staffs, as Thibodeau and Clifford, as well as Bulls’ assistant coach Andy Greer, worked together previously in New York, where Bobcats’ lead assistant coach played for the Knicks, coached by current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Before the game, Thibodeau told a humorous story about Clifford’s start with the Knicks as an advance scout—he apparently wasn’t too good with computers—while Clifford spoke about how Thibodeau mentored him in his early NBA coaching days.
Thibodeau and Clifford also worked together in Houston, and prior to last season, Clifford almost accepted a position on the Bulls’ coaching staff before deciding to join the Lakers. Clifford and Ewing, a childhood idol of Noah — Noah’s father Yannick and Ewing were friends while Noah grew up in New York — stopped by the Bulls’ locker room pregame Wednesday and Ewing gave Noah a pair of his old-school sneakers. Jordan also made a pregame locker-room appearance after flying in before the contest — he said he had babysitting duties, taking care of his infant twins — and sat on the Bobcats’ bench during the game.