NEWARK, N.J. – Together, they had come to the Chicago Bulls seen as something of introverts, inspiring doubts about the abilities of Derrick Rose(notes) and Tom Thibodeau to blossom into leaders of men.
Chicago's Derrick Rose got the best of the Nets' Deron Williams on Thursday, and it wasn't close.
For all his talent, Rose had to listen to people doubt his disposition because of his reticence to talking loudly and boldly. He had to listen to doubts over his intelligence because of an NCAA standardized testing scandal. For all his credentials, Thibodeau had been rejected over and over as a head coaching candidate because he had been labeled a great defensive mind suited best for the dim lights of the film room, the empty stands of practice gyms. As general managers passed on him, they privately doubted his ability to command a locker room.
The NBA is strange this way. It'll slap a label on you fast and make you work the rest of your life to shed it. Rose and Thibodeau was a partnership that promised to grow gradually, to evolve these Bulls on a steady climb into Eastern Conference contention. Only, everything has changed this season. Rose is not just an All-Star, but the best choice to be the NBA’s MVP now. Thibodeau hasn’t cultivated just a great defense, but a championship culture of selflessness and sacrifice.
“Thibs has D-Rose buying into everything because he’s such a smart person, a smart player,” the Bulls’ Brian Scalabrine(notes) says. “And that’s a big reason – maybe the biggest – why this team is so locked in. … And we are locked into the message.”
The Bulls won their eighth straight game on Thursday night over the New Jersey Nets, 84-73, and moved back ahead of the Boston Celtics with a half-game lead for the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed. Rose made Deron Williams(notes) miss 11 of 12 shots, and made the victory his own by playing the part of the closer again in the fourth quarter.
It doesn’t matter that Carlos Boozer(notes) is sitting out with an ankle injury, that Joakim Noah(notes) played with the flu, the Bulls keep coming. There's a relentlessness out of Rose, such a propriety and purpose. He carries Thibodeau's word throughout the locker room and the message has been unmistakable: I believe, and so do you.
This is the beauty of the partnership. This is why Rose is an MVP. He doesn’t make his case with big talk, but with bigger performances. This is his hometown team, and Rose admires stability and staying power. This can be a sport of young players trying to emulate personas and personalities that don’t fit them, that end up causing teammates to suspect something insincere.
“You’ve got Kobe [Bryant], who is outspoken,” Rose said. “You’ve got LeBron [James], who’s outspoken. And then, you’ve got leaders like Tim Duncan(notes), who is quiet and doesn’t need to say much. He doesn’t have to say much. He doesn’t have to show emotion.”
And that always told Rose that he could lead his way, construct credibility over time with the franchise, the coaches, the city. Thibodeau has sold his values on these Bulls because Rose has allowed it. That’s always the case for a star player and coach. This was the way it worked for Thibodeau as an assistant with the New York Knicks, when Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson bought into Jeff Van Gundy. This is the way it worked with Kevin Garnett(notes), Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) with Doc Rivers in Boston.
“He doesn’t beat his chest, or draw attention to himself,” Thibodeau says. “His confidence comes from his preparation. He works the hardest, and that’s how he leads us.”
Perhaps none of these Bulls were sure about Thibodeau upon his arrival because they had never seen such single-mindedness, such an obsessive, 24-7 grind out of a coach. Truth be told, few have ever witnessed anyone like Thibodeau. His reputation had been that he would be hard to talk to, dictatorial, but they found something else: A lot of humanity, and hardly any hubris.
Thibodeau is a 52-year-old bachelor who sleeps a few hours a night and spends the rest of his waking hours in the office. When it was time to work, they go hard. Yet, they found him softer away from the floor, busting chops, sharing a laugh. Most of all, they’ve found this: When they follow his boring, repetitive blueprint – defense, rebounding and low turnovers – they almost always win.
Rose loves Thibodeau’s grind, admires it and shares so much of his disposition. “I can call him no matter what time it is,” Rose said, “and we can talk.”
He’s called as late as 1 a.m. after a game just to go through things, to talk about the team, about the next step.
“It doesn’t matter when you call him,” Rose said. “He’s going to be up working. … He doesn’t have a life outside basketball.”
Rose isn’t much better because it isn’t uncommon for him to wander into the Berto Center late in evenings to get extra shots to the rim. The lights are always on upstairs in Thibodeau’s office.
So much for a slow, sure process in Chicago. Out of nowhere, Rose could be the NBA’s MVP. Out of nowhere, a rookie coach has cultivated a conference championship contender. And out of nowhere, a most improbable partnership has changed everything in the East.
No more labels, no more pre-conceived ideas for Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau. Together, they have the Chicago Bulls chasing everything now.