Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can’t win, even when he’s winning. His team topped the Boston Celtics at home on Thursday night, winning for just the fourth time in 10 tries – hardly the sort of success rate he predicted prior to the season, when many expected the Bulls to challenge the Miami Heat for the best record in the East, since they’d topped the team in 2011 and 2012 regular seasons with a healthy Derrick Rose.
Rose is obviously out, now, but supporting All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are in the lineup, alongside Jimmy Butler and Rose replacement Kirk Hinrich. All four are dealing with nagging injuries, but they were healthy enough to play in the win. Noah in particular shined with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks, just missing out on a triple-double while finishing with nine assists in 34 minutes. Noah played the entire fourth quarter in a 12-point win, though, obviously gunning for that triple-double with the recovering Butler, Deng and Hinrich all on the floor to end a game that the Bulls led in the fourth by 19 points with four minutes to go.
Following the contest, both Noah and Thibodeau had to answer to criticism for alternately shooting for that pointless statistical hallmark, and for potential overuse of the still-not-quite-100-percent players. From Aggrey Sam at CSN Chicago:
“I think probably, I don’t know, three minutes to go,” Noah said of when he learned that he was close to recording the triple-double. “It’s not really good to play basketball that way, where you’re focusing on your stats. It’s not that cool. But I tried to get it. Jimmy tried to force the shot at the end. It’s not a good look.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, however, refused to admit it was apparent that his players were trying to get Noah the honor.
“The end of the game, obviously we’ve got to do better and we were trying to run through him, too, because of the ball pressure,” the coach said, deflecting the question. “I was calling for what we were running. Now, we didn’t execute it. When they’re putting two on the ball in the backcourt, he’s very good at pushing the ball up and I don’t want to play slow there. I don’t want him to hold the ball where they can come and re-trap. He’s shown throughout his career that he can go and make a great play and get you the easy basket.”
But when asked directly whether he apologized to Celtics head coach Brad Stevens for the perception, accurate or not, that his team was playing for statistics, Thibodeau’s response was a bit more indignant.
“That was private, what [Stevens] said to me. [Boston] cut the lead at that point,” he said. “You guys [the media] have all that stuff. [Noah] was doing what he was asked to do.”
Yeah, well, this is what happens, coach.
Noah is dealing with groin and hip injuries, which is why he was limited to just 34 minutes overall in the win. That said, Thibodeau deserves full criticism for his overuse of Noah (who has long battled plantar fasciitis, an injury often caused by too many minutes) for the first half of the 2012-13 season. Noah eventually succumbed to that injury as that season wore on.
Deng, whom the Chicago Tribune reported was on “a minutes restriction,” only played 29 minutes but came out for the game’s final 38 seconds after sitting out for a few minutes prior as Noah looked for a shooter to pass to. Butler, whom the Bulls received much criticism for playing 46 minutes during a blowout loss on a bad turf toe last week, played the final eight minutes with the Bulls comfortably ahead.
Maybe that’s the rub. It appears as if Tom Thibodeau is never really “comfortably ahead.”
Thibs referenced Boston cutting the lead in the fourth, but it was only down to 12 points with less than two minutes to go, with Chicago in possession of the ball. The 2013-14 Boston Celtics aren’t going to outscore the league’s second best defense by 13 points in 113 seconds, after spotting Chicago 20-some seconds to peel off the shot clock with their first possession. It’s just not happening.
Is that extra 113 seconds of Noah, Deng, Butler and Hinrich a problem? Nah, not really. But Thibodeau has earned the furrowed brow by continually working players far past minute allotments they should be taking in, going back to 2010. If he doesn’t want the magnifying glass, then he needed to take the long view years ago – but Tom Thibodeau is completely incapable of not living possession to possession. That’s his greatest asset, and it leads to his biggest – deserved – criticism.
We understand the coach’s frustration. This came in a game against Celtics’ assistant coach Ron Adams, Thibodeau’s former top assistant and one that he did not want to see let go as the paranoid and insecure Bulls front office did last summer.
On top of that, for once in his career Thibodeau is working without a go-to offensive scheme in place far before training camp started. Though Rose was out for the entirety of 2012-13, Thibodeau had all summer to work up an offensive game plan heavily featuring Joakim Noah initiating the offense. Last summer he redirected that plan to feature Rose above all, and Derrick went down just weeks into the season. Only recently – as in, “Thursday night,” – has Noah looked like the same initiator that kept the Bulls afloat in 2012-13.
There’s a lot swirling around Tom Thibodeau, who leads NBA coaches with six technical fouls this season, these days. Thursday night didn’t exactly feature a bone chilling postgame outburst, but we wouldn’t be surprised if things inch closer and closer to that as the season moves along.
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