CHICAGO – All hail the conquering heroes! The Chicago Bulls overcame a 19-point deficit against the Denver Nuggets Friday night to wrap up the month’s schedule at 8-0 and nail down the NBA’s unofficial preseason championship. So unofficial, of course, that it doesn’t even exist.
Baseball lore has Reggie Jackson and these days Carlos Beltran, but the NBA doesn’t do much celebrating of Mr. Octobers. For obvious reasons.
While other teams with designs on reaching The Finals in June sat key players as their slates of tune-up games wound down, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau – with less than four minutes left in the finale – had Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy on the court. Taj Gibson had sat down moments earlier, and the only reason Joakim Noah wasn’t out there was that he still was nursing a groin injury suffered in the first week of camp. Oh, and Kirk Hinrich was on the side after dealing with a concussion and sore shoulder.
That accounts for Chicago’s top eight players, still grinding or still recuperating in the dwindling minutes of the preseason. Which is the point.
Starting center Noah logged less than 20 minutes in a single preseason appearance 10 days ago and is questionable for the regular-season opener at Miami Tuesday. Hinrich, the third guard, is iffy too. And the black cloud of injuries that has hung over the Bulls in recent seasons will be looming large again at the start of this one.
Playing harder and generally longer than the next guy is the Thibodeau way. It worked well enough to earn the Bulls the NBA’s best record in the coach’s first two seasons (112-36) and pushed them – without Rose all season, with pieces from the spare-parts bin – past Brooklyn into the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring.
But Deng, Hinrich and Noah all were hobbled at various points, the revolving door to the trainers room kept spinning and the Bulls never did get what they really wanted.
So it has to be asked: Might there be a better way? Some contenders ease their way through the regular season, eyes firmly fixed on April, May and June. Yet here are the Bulls, gutting out the preseason, nailing down that top defensive rating (87.9 points per 100 possessions) for what it’s worth.
“You’re building winning habits all season long,” Thibodeau had said before tipoff Friday. “If you try to establish your habits when you get to the playoffs, I don’t know what you get done there. It’s too late.”
Afterward, in vintage Thibs form, he offered a glimpse at those habits: “Each and every day is important. You can’t skip a day. You can’t only work when you feel like it, if you feel good. You have to work on the days when you’re not feeling great. You’ve got to help push the team forward. And everyone has to work together.”
The rap remains, though, that Chicago players log too many minutes in meaningless stretches until they get hurt and aren’t logging any minutes at all.
“Right now, that seems to be what everyone says,” Thibodeau said. “So like, when a guy plays 20 minutes a game and he gets hurt, does anyone say he got hurt because he’s not playing enough? Injuries are part of the game. You have to do all the things necessary to condition yourself to go through a long season. it’s very competitive. When you look at the makeup of teams, a guy like LeBron [James], a guy like [Kevin] Durant, a guy like Paul George, they’re going to play big minutes. Most teams, two or three guys are playing a long time.”
Never mind that he-pulls-a-knife-you-pull-a-gun thing from the movie. With the Bulls, the Chicago way is grinding down the competition. And sometimes oneself.
“I only know one system, that’s Thibs’ system,” Gibson said. “Where guys tend to want to be out there. Guys want to go out there and keep playing. It could be a flaw – who knows? But right now, we just focus on what we think. We don’t really worry about what the whole league thinks.”
It made sense that Rose played heavy minutes this preseason – he’d been out for 17 months, he was healed and fresh and he needed to get in game shape and flake off rust. That led logically to teammates playing longer, too, to adjust to Rose’s game and speed.
But as players go down and come back, there’s a chasing-their-tail element, too. For instance, Thibodeau has made it clear that the rotation guys will need to work in Noah’s game – the play-making center – when he returns. So Deng, Boozer, Butler et al will face extra burn for that. And so on.
Deng, who played banged-up last season until complication from a spinal tap made even that impossible in the playoffs, loves heavy minutes … at least when he’s surviving them. Taking all 82 games seriously in search of the No. 1 overall postseason seed is a worthy goal, he said.
But losing it after one or two rounds is true Gift of the Magi stuff, if they’re undermanned by the time they get there. So how do the Bulls find their balance?
“I don’t know,” Deng admitted. “It’s a long season. We’ve got to do a better job ourselves. The trainers are doing a better job of just focusing on that, on each individual. Derrick is doing an amazing job. Jo is in there. It’s also maturing and taking care of your body.
“We’ve got to be healthy when it comes to April and then get going. I think we understand that even more now.”
Then, as he spoke to a small cluster of reporters late Friday, Deng’s tone shifted.
“It’s different for everybody. I believe that it’s good for me. I’ve been through different coaches. I’ve been with coaches who didn’t practice as much, I’ve been with coaches who didn’t push you as much. I think some guys suffer from it and I think some individuals really excel from it. … I don’t know if we’re there yet to give guys three days off and come back. I don’t know – we never tried it.”
Turns out, though the reporters had their backs turned, Deng had seen Thibodeau walk into the nearly empty locker room to grab a cold drink. The Bulls veteran finally broke out laughing.
“You saw how I answered that when he walked in?” Deng said. ”’He’s the nicest guy ever. The nicest guy in the world!’ “
Laughing about their grinding ways, like winning, is OK in October. But it would mean so much more if Deng and the Bulls could do that come June.