The thing that makes Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau the likely favorite for the Coach of the Year award is the thing that is driving him, and potentially his team, batty. The man -- the brilliant, exacting, intelligent dude who knows way more about this than any of us -- treats each basketball day like a 15-year old treats a high school romance. It's always the end of the world, nothing matters beyond what's either happening now or in 16 hours, and nobody understands.
This is why Tom Thibodeau is going absolutely bonkers in the wake of Chicago's first back-to-back losses on the season. You're allowed to play that back, if you need to. The Chicago Bulls led the NBA in wins last season. They've led the NBA in winning percentage for most of this year, despite watching as 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose missed 21 of the team's 55 games. And despite Rose's absences, the team has gone over three months without losing consecutive games.
Not to get fat and sassy as late April, and that postseason, approaches; but this accomplishment in and of itself is worth a laurel and hearty handshake. Thibs' team has already clinched a playoff berth under his guidance, the squad has somehow improved to fourth in offensive efficiency this year (up from 10th in 2011) despite Derrick Rose missing over a third of the team's games, and until Monday night they answered every step back with a step-up win. Still, Thibs is ticked. From the Chicago Sun-Times:
"I felt like we let go of the rope," Thibodeau said. "Usually, we're a team that has shown great fight, great resolve. We get down; we fight back. I don't feel we ever let go of the rope. The last two games, we let go of the rope."
He goes on, not wanting anything to do with blaming the lockout-truncated season that his and 29 other NBA teams have had to play through:
"To me, that's the convenient excuse," Thibodeau said of Rose's prolonged absence.
"At this time of year, you could say injuries, the condensed schedule, back-to-backs, four-in-five, three in a row.
''It's just a matter of we lost two games because of our mistakes, not because of injuries or because Derrick or any of that."
There have been mistakes, to be sure.
On Sunday, the Bulls made a HUGE mistake in not having a healthy Derrick Rose on hand to take on the best team in the Western Conference. Without a healthy Derrick Rose (again, a major misstep), the Thunder defense was able to grab defensive rebound after defensive rebound when Chicago's offense came up short, dashing into the open court and taking advantage of a transition game no defense could help to contend with.
On Monday, Chicago really screwed up in not submitting Derrick Rose's name on the active roster. Rose, who has missed 11 straight games with a strained groin, could only watch as a very, very good Houston Rockets team (coming off a tough home loss to Indiana the night before) overcame an early deficit to hand the Bulls a loss.
(Seriously, Tom. It's OK.)
Bad, droll jokes aside, there have been mistakes. The Bulls aren't cutting and responding offensively as well as they have in the past. The spacing and movement hasn't been the same in these two losses, and the drive to overcome Rose's absence hasn't been the same. It's cliché to point out that Chicago really did have to work twice as hard to make up for Rose's injury, just to compete, but that's the actual truth. And while Chicago is still working hard, the team hasn't featured that edge of late. That movement. That spirit that teams weren't able to catch up to. As a result, the Bulls have become predictable. And when there are no surprises, the on-paper calculations usually win out. And the Bulls, for all their gifts, aren't as good as a team like Oklahoma City and/or Houston without Derrick Rose.
You'd have a hard time blaming this lot. This team has played such remarkable basketball, for so long without Rose and/or Luol Deng, that the group's achievements almost felt commonplace. Not to diminish these players … but that's C.J. Watson out there. That's Ronnie Brewer, acting as some modern-day John Havlicek all-rounder. That's John Lucas III, suddenly efficient. Remember, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng weren't shooting 25 times a game in Rose's absence. It was team ball predicated on movement, and surprising the opponent.
Not in a "wow, we're surprised this team is this good without Rose"-sort of way. But in a "[curse word], our heads were turned and [Omer] Asik just got a dunk"-sort of way. Teams knew, coming in, that this Bulls team worked hard. What these defeated opponents weren't ready for was the movement, and the way the Bulls piled on. Exacting and unrelenting, in the style of their fantastic coach.
Chicago's "mistake" has been to pull off the throttle a bit. Their "mistake" has been to play to the same level of intensity as their opponents, and when that happens, talent will out. And, not sure if you've heard, but the Chicago Bulls are not as talented as other teams with Derrick Rose out, and Luol Deng playing with one working hand.
This won't change any time soon, mind you. There aren't any trades to be made. Rose could come back soon enough, but he won't be right until the offseason hits, and Deng won't be right until next fall. So it, unfortunately, goes.
The plan is correct, though, and the particular intrigue behind this Chicago-relative "swoon" is expertly timed. It's the first week of April, time to get these things out of the way, and time to remember how last year's regular season ended. Chicago was miserable, offensively. Winning games but not blowing teams out. Tired and dragging and hurt. By the time the playoffs hit, though the squad dispatched Indiana and Atlanta before falling to Miami, the wins became harder and harder to come by.
This time around, though Deng is playing through that bum left wrist, the team is taking it easy with Rose. As well they should. This is what they've earned by winning so many times, so early in this weird season. This isn't scratch-off, lottery luck. This is a luxury that the Bulls have worked their way toward.
It's hard to remember that, in the eye of the hurricane, and Tom Thibodeau clearly (at least, on record) has a hard time putting together a sense of perspective about just how far his team has come. He needs to, though. We're not exactly telling the man to take off on holiday and rest on his regular season achievements, not with the Thunder and Heat nipping at Chicago's heels, but he can't push any harder. And Chicago, despite those back-to-back losses, can't respond any better than they've done.
It's a mistake, I suppose. But it's also human nature, and a function of this odd season. Thibodeau doesn't want to hear any excuses, and that's admirable, but he should listen to the reasons. Whether the dip ended in a loss, or two losses, the swoon was bound to happen. And this is a good chance to handle this two-in-66 run with humility, honor, and appreciation. Even if you don't win titles in February and March.
It's OK, Tom. Trust me. You get to play 11 more games after this, before the regular season ends. And, best for you, teams have to play 11 more games against you and your team.
Best of luck to them. They'll need it, even if the paper is on their side.