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NEW YORK – Outside the visiting locker room, Tom Thibodeau limped to a stop, leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment. He could see everything unfolding again on Monday night – waves and waves of resistance, brilliant tactical execution and an enormous investment of belief and bravado out of these Chicago Bulls.
Hours after the humiliation of a Game 1 obliteration, Thibodeau gathered these Bulls on Sunday morning for one of his blistering sermons from the pulpit. He challenged the Bulls with the fiercest of ferocity, and the crooked smile washing over his face late Monday night reflected the resounding response of his locker room.
As circumstances go, the Bulls' 90-82 victory over the Nets was one of Thibs' masterpieces, a Mona Lisa born of a crushing Game 1 loss, a beaten and broken-down roster getting buried in an avalanche of criticism and overnight obits. Some were so sure that Thibodeau had pushed these Bulls too hard, too far and they had nothing left for the playoffs.
For now, the MVP of these Bulls remains the rumpled, defensive visionary on the bench.
"Most guys, from Patrick Ewing to Yao [Ming] to [Kevin] Garnett, they want to be coached," Thibodeau told Yahoo! Sports. "They want to be pushed. In all my years in this, one thing has never changed: You win with serious, tough-minded players. That never changes.
"That's the challenge now. Things are changing in the game. …Things are different. When you're putting a team together, I think of what [Bill] Belichick said: 'You're not collecting talent, you're building a team.' "
As it turns out, Thibodeau is the rarest commodity in the NBA: an indisputable difference-maker on the bench. This is a players' league, but Thibodeau is easily the most underpaid commodity in the NBA. At $4 million per year, the big-market Bulls never need to go deep into luxury tax, because Thibodeau will find a way to win with almost whatever they give him. That's a blessing and a curse for him, because someday Thibodeau and Derrick Rose will demand more out of owner Jerry Reinsdorf. For now, Rose needs to get on the floor again before they can ever chase a championship. For Thibodeau, this was always the plan, always the reason he chose here.
Three years ago, he turned down the Nets and New Orleans Hornets to wait on the chance to interview for the Bulls job. He had gone into his 50s without a head coaching offer – years and years, rejection upon rejection – but he gambled everything that he could to get a chance to coach Chicago's superstar, Rose.
With a torn ACL and a full year of rehabilitation, Rose still isn't playing for these Bulls. He practices hard. He works up a lather shooting before the game. Yet, Chicago is resigned to the reality that Rose will not play this season. The Nets have a far superior roster and payroll, but there was Deron Williams gobbled up within that trapping, swarming Bulls defense.
The Bulls constructed a shell around the basket and forced the Nets to shoot over them. It was a disaster for Brooklyn. On one leg, with plantar fasciitis, Joakim Noah was the personification of these unselfish, unyielding Bulls. Seventeen of 19 Nets' shots missed in the third quarter. Williams missed eight of nine for the game. These Bulls, they come and take everything away.
"People always talk about going on offensive runs," Thibodeau said. "But you can go on defensive runs, too."
The Bulls started a defensive run three years ago here, and it doesn't matter that they've lost Rose for the year, doesn't matter this roster is so flawed and frugally thrown together. Nevertheless, the Bulls beat the Nets for Nazr Mohammad late in free agency, signed him for the 13th and final roster spot, and Mohammad saved them in Game 2.
Thibodeau couldn't stop talking about him in the hallway, about how Mohammed kept practicing hard, kept preparing, even when the minutes weren't coming this season. "And the guys who take shortcuts, who aren't ready, they fail when their opportunity comes," Thibodeau said.
All along, that was the story of Thibodeau's coaching career. He reached the Eastern Conference finals with the NBA MVP two years ago. Now, Thibodeau's threatening to reach the conference semifinals with Rose never playing a minute in the season.
The Miami Heat want no part of the pain that the Bulls will inflict on them in the next round, no part of how hard they'll hit them, how hard they'll challenge them. The Heat will win the series, but they know what's coming out of Chicago, and it isn't pleasant.
This was true for the Bulls, too, on Sunday morning, when Thibodeau stood on his bully pulpit and challenged them to the core. They had abandoned every principle that he had ever instilled within them on Saturday night, and people wondered whether maybe they were too beat-up, too limited, to withstand these Nets.
Looking back, it turned out to be pure mythology. Looking back, Thibodeau had the Nets where he wanted them. This was a genius, virtuoso performance out of the Bulls, and Thibodeau stood in the hallway and shrugged his shoulders late Monday. "Hey," he said. "Guys want to be coached. I don't think that ever changes. They want you to give them a plan, and give them a chance to have success."
In the ultimate players' league, Tom Thibodeau, the rumpled, sleepless 55-year-old who wondered if he'd ever get this shot, was on his way back to Chicago 1-1, back from the brink again.
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