CHICAGO (AP) — Watching the Bulls play offense some nights, it’s a wonder The House That Jordan Built is still standing.
Sunday turned out to be another one of those nights, and in a 102-93 playoff-opening loss to the Washington Wizards no less. Worse, the tough-minded defense that has let the Bulls stand up to high-powered opponents lacked its usual effort and intensity.
So coach Tom Thibodeau zeroed in where he always does.
“One-hundred-and-two points, 48 percent, outrebounded – it’s hard to win like that,” he said, just getting started. “Giving up 35 free throws … “
The way those numbers rolled off Thibodeau’s tongue was no accident. The guy spent most of his 25 years between head-coaching jobs – Thibodeau’s first stint was at Division III Salem State University in 1984-85 – at a half-dozen NBA stops, where every defense he touched got better and someone else usually got the credit.
Thibodeau accomplished it by relentlessly breaking down game films, possession by possession, then drawing up a plan to win every one. That was long before he lost his two best scoring options early this season – Derrick Rose to a knee injury (again) after just 10 games; and Luol Deng in a deal with Cleveland after just 23. It’s like he’s competing – at least some nights – with one hand tied behind his back.
The Bulls finished an NBA-worst in scoring average and shooting percentage, and only Miami and Indiana attempted fewer shots. Thibodeau has made do with once-promising castoffs D.J. Augustin and Mike Dunleavy, and made it a priority to share the ball, no matter how meager the talent at any given moment. But mostly, he doubled down on what he knows best – treating every defensive stand like it was the last.
So no one had to remind Thibodeau the Bulls were just 4-12 this season when they gave up 100 or more points, worse (2-11) when they allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent or better from the floor, and winless (0-11) when they failed to collect at least 13 assists. In other words: Thibodeau’s nightmare trifecta.
What made it even tougher to digest is that Chicago led by 13 points barely two minutes into the third quarter and was still ahead 69-57 when Dunleavy finished off a just-like-the-coach-drew-it-up six-pass sequence with the last of his three 3-pointers around the 7-minute mark.
“Up 13, we exhaled and they came back,” Joakim Noah said ruefully. “Bad turnovers, they got some easy scores. We’ve got to make adjustments.
“This is chess,” he added. “It isn’t checkers.”
Given the pieces he’s been handed, Thibodeau has played his four seasons here like a Grandmaster. He helped Rose win the league’s MVP award before his knee gave out, stole a playoff round from Brooklyn last season with the much-traveled (and since-departed) Nate Robinson shooting out the lights, and now Thibodeau has refashioned the always-awkward Noah into one of the most reliable big men in the game. Which made his performance against the Wizards a little puzzling.
To be sure, it came at the end of a tough week. He flew to New York after learning of the death of Tyrone Green, a much-respected youth basketball coach whom Noah called a mentor and “second father.” Against the Wizards, Noah contributed 10 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high four assists. But he also got run over repeatedly on the defensive end by Nene, who scored a game-high 24 points.
“He’s versatile,” Noah said in front of his locker, his voice barely above a whisper. “He can shoot, he can post up, he’s aggressive.”
A moment later, Noah was asked whether he found it tough to play after losing a close friend.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
But the moment after that, he was repeating the Thibodeau mantra: If you can’t play any better, at least try harder.
“We definitely have to pick up our intensity a little bit,” Noah said.
A few lockers over, D.J. Augustin echoed it.
“They came out and played harder,” he said. “We’re going to have to match that.”
And a few minutes after that, the master motivator himself walked into the interview room.
“Offensively, if we think a call isn’t going our way, you can’t allow that to take away from getting back and playing great defense. There is a lot of things you can do,” Thibodeau said finally, “to help your team win.”
Read between the lines and this is the message he’s sending his team; You guys miss a lot of shots and because you’re not Michael Jordan, you won’t get a lot of calls. So get your butts back on defense – or else.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com