CHICAGO – Turn the corner into the Chicago Bulls’ coach’s office, and there was something seldom seen: Three kids climbing onto Tom Thibodeau, twisting back his arms, mussing his hair and threatening to topple him backward in his desk chair. These were his nephews from Berlin, Conn., wearing UConn Huskies jackets and sharing with the reclusive, relentless coach the closest you’ll ever see to a rollicking postgame party.
Here was Thibodeau flanked with Diet Coke cans and two bottles of honey for a voice struggling to make it to the playoffs. Ask Thibodeau about that Chicago Sun-Times back page that dropped on his office desk sometime after 6 a.m. on Thursday, and his eyes dart wide, his mouth curls into a smile and he says: “How great was that?”
Here’s the genius of these Bulls: Somehow, the leadership can sell everyone – the papers, the locker room – on the idea that the most dominant, most locked-in regular-season team is somehow vulnerable, somehow on the cusp of catastrophe. The Chicago Bulls had won 16 of 18 games, and yet here was Rose delivering a foreboding message with the Boston Celtics looming. Thibodeau could warn his team over and over on slippage, but nothing resonates like a star sounding the alarm.
“And then, he comes out and backs it up,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said later with a sigh. “That kid is something else.”
This was the kind of night that made everyone step back and admire the most impressive work of this basketball season: the reconstructing of a championship contender in Chicago. The Bulls delivered a clinic to the Celtics, a 97-81 beat-down born out of the relentless and rigid defense, hellacious rebounding and the sheer greatness of Rose. His genius went so far beyond the 30 points and eight assists, beyond his blurring drives past Rajon Rondo(notes) and double-clutch finishes at the rim. His genius comes in the details of how he leads, how he practices, how he conducts himself as a franchise player when everyone’s watching – and maybe most importantly – when no one’s watching him.
Within the Bulls' locker room, they will privately tell you: The belief changed when the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins(notes) to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green(notes) and Nenad Krstic(notes). Teammates remembered Rose’s vibe transforming the room, resonating with everyone. They have such great respect for the Celtics and learned so much from losing to them in the playoffs two years ago. The Bulls suspected they had completely closed the gap on Boston, but word of the Perkins trade ran through the room like a live wire on Feb. 24. The Bulls beat Miami that night and they’ve run off 20 of 23 games since the Celtics made the move.
With Perkins gone, everything changed for the Celtics and they knew it: the toughness, the tenacity, the presence in the post.
“He was tough,” Rose said. “We could defend on someone that was big. He was really tough to go around. … They’re different.”
Different doesn’t mean better. It means diminished. The Bulls beat the Celtics 44-22 in the paint, beat them badly on the boards, too. They assailed the Celtics the way the Celtics used to assail everyone else.
“We know we can beat them,” Rose flatly said.
The Bulls are 58-20, on the cusp of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the truth is unmistakable: The Eastern Conference comes through here. Boston tried badly to win this game, played its stars big minutes, and it didn’t matter. The Celtics couldn’t compete. The Bulls have blown them out consecutive times now, and the invincibility that once existed with the Celtics is long gone. Ask three people who were part of the ’08 champion Boston Celtics – Rivers, Thibodeau and Bulls forward Brian Scalabrine(notes) – and all three agree that the ferocity, the fierceness of these Bulls is reminiscent of that title season.
“Right now, they’re playing harder than anyone else,” Rivers said. “That has a lot to do with their winning. That comes from both Thibs and Derrick Rose being here.”
All around Rose, these Bulls play at a fever pitch. Before games, they ingest Thibodeau’s detailed scouting reports. During games, they execute them to perfection. And afterward, they spit out his clich és. In the preseason, no one projected a 60-win regular season and complete dominance over Boston and Miami. Not with Carlos Boozer(notes) missing so much time, not with Noah missing half the season.
“See this coming?” Thibodeau responded in the quiet of his office late Thursday. “At the beginning, maybe not all of this, no …” The kids had climbed off him, and Tom Thibodeau had a moment to reflect on a season that delivered one more statement, one more roundhouse right to the standard of greatness in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics.
“Hey, Boston is going to be great in the playoffs,” Thibodeau said. “Those guys are going to be there.”
He knows this, too: Eventually, the Celtics will have to come through Chicago, through Derrick Rose, to get back to the NBA Finals. Everything’s changed here. The Bulls still respect the Celtics, but the invincibility has been stripped away. Boston’s never seemed so vulnerable to them. The Celtics are wobbly on the way into the playoffs, unsure of who they are anymore, and this season’s MVP is dying for a chance to finish this job – and maybe finish off this Celtics era – in the conference finals. All through Chicago now, all through Derrick Rose.