NEW YORK – Think of the difference between the NBA’s regular season and its postseason like this: You’re taking a college course that meets four times weekly, covers a fresh topic each class and grades you on daily multiple-choice quizzes, each of which represents only a sliver of your overall mark.
Then, late in the semester, everything changes: twice a week sessions, same narrow subject matter drilled down into again and again and one lengthy, hand-cramping essay exam at the end that makes or breaks your final grade.
The former is the regular season. The latter, the playoffs. Some teams are better at shifting gears than others.
“That’s NBA basketball,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said before the Bulls’ shootaround Saturday morning. They went through their workout/walk-through at a gym on Manhattan’s west side but cross over to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday night against the Nets.
“That’s what you enjoy. That’s the challenge of it,” Thibodeau said. “But you’re playing against a great team. To me, you play the regular season to put yourself in the best position you can. But once that’s been determined, now you’ve got to go out and try to get it done.”
For a gym rat and grinder like Thibodeau, the playoffs are an opportunity to lock in on one opponent for as many as seven straight games. So it’s all about adjustments in between, from one to the next. Back-to-backs are over, there always is time for practice and what worked one night might be the thing your foe takes away from you the next from tipoff to final horn.
Of course, the smart guys at the other end of the floor are doing precisely the same thing.
“You have to earn your wings” Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to be at your best. You’ve got to have a lot of toughness. You have to be able to get through things.”
In Chicago’s case, that means injuries. The playoffs lend a different approach to those, too. On one hand, there’s recovery time between games. On the other, every game a hobbled player sits out gets him two, three or four extra days of healing.
The Bulls’ most pressing injury belongs to center Joakim Noah, hampered by plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Noah warmed up for shootaround, then had a long chat with Thibodeau at center court. He was considered a game-time decision even to test his foot in limited minutes.
Forward Taj Gibson, who is back from a sprained left knee and healed enough to don a smaller brace than he had been wearing, said: “Anytime we can give Jo time to heal up and rest, it’s great. We were in the same position last year when Joakim turned his ankle [in the first-round elimination by Philadelphia]. We’re just trying to give him some time to get back and get right.”
That puts pressure on Gibson and likely starter veteran Nazr Mohammed to contain Brooklyn’s All-Star big man, Brook Lopez. Said Gibson: “We’ve got to throw bodies at him. We’ve got to be strong with fouls. Just got to contest a lot of shots.”
Stretching the schedule out in the playoffs also provides even more time for injured Bulls guard Derrick Rose – who has yet to play since blowing out the anterior cruciate ligament in 2012’s playoff opener – to theoretically get healthier. Thibodeau repeated the team’s stance that it will give Rose minutes whenever he’s ready for them – “that’d be fine” even in mid-series, the coach said – before veering close to saying what most people have assumed.
“I mean, most likely [he's] out, but you never know,” Thibodeau said. “The playoffs are stretched out, too, so you have to factor that in. Who knows another week from now where he is. You always want to leave that possibility open.”
Rose is on the roster. There’s nothing to be gained from ruling him out. But Noah’s injury and day-to-day status is the one matters most to Chicago now.