Even though Tom Thibodeau no longer has Luol Deng around, his philosophy on playing his starters and core players large minutes each night hasn't changed.
And he said Monday before the Bulls' tilt with the Thunder that much of his reasoning behind playing his core for long stretches stems as much from mental strength as it does physical toughness.
"I was in Boston for a good chunk of (Larry) Bird’s career. He had it and Jordan had it," Thibodeau said, "and when you talk to those guys you can understand why, their thing was prepare yourself to play big minutes and never show your opponent any signs of physical or mental weakness. And that goes a long way. I think when your leaders do that it goes down through your team, so veteran leadership’s important. And that’s what necessary to win a championship."
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Jimmy Butler ranks seventh in the NBA in minutes per game this season, while Noah ranks 36th (34.5 minutes) but has played 35 or more minutes in each of the last three months. Noah has done everything for the Bulls this season, from being the initiator on offense to being the emotional leader to scoring when he needs to, and according to Thibodeau, Noah is able to get what he needs to get done for the Bulls because he's playing the minutes he's playing.
"I was fortunate when I was in Boston to be part of a group like that. We had (Kevin) Garnett, who was relentless, and (Paul) Pierce and (Ray) Allen were the same, and you need that. And so hopefully we have it. We try to bring it every night, I think that’s important. You build that habit, and you can’t pick and choose when you’re going to bring it; you’ve got to bring it every day, and I think that’s important."
Thibodeau also said the use of extended minutes isn't black and white, as circumstance and situation play a large factor. He used the example of the San Antonio Spurs, who give veterans Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili nights off and rarely play them more than 32-33 minutes per night. But, as Thibodaeu pointed out, Duncan averaged between 38 and 40 minutes per game his first six NBA seasons.
"Phil is one of the greatest of all-time, maybe the greatest, and I know from coaching against him, his best players were always on the floor and they were conditioned to be on the floor. I’ve talked to (Michael) Jordan about it and the way he conditioned himself both mentally and physically, and I think when you go back through history and you look at championship teams, you see how the minutes were dispersed," Thibodeau said. "So, I want to see the science. Like, (if) there’s some science that says if you play a guy 28 minutes and we can guarantee he’ll never get hurt, then you’ve got something. But until then, I think how you pace your team, you get a feel for that over time."