One gear: Thibodeau, Bulls continue to grind forward

By Steve Aschburner,

Tom Thibodeau's intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau’s intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – If the Chicago Bulls didn’t exist, NBA commissioner Adam Silver would have to invent them.

As this team rests its star players for a fresh start in the NBA postseason, as that team eyeballs the standings to scale its efforts on a given night to playoff positioning or lottery chances, the Chicago Bulls trudge forward, always forward.

Sometimes they march. Sometimes they plod. Every once in a while, the game flows more freely and you’d swear you saw swooshes on their work boots. But this is a one-direction, one-speed, one-gear team – forward, forever in overdrive – that doesn’t apologize when critics seize on that as a problem at this time of year: The Bulls play so hard all the time, so there’s no “next level” to which they can take their game in the playoffs.

Like that’s a bad thing.

So what if Chicago doesn’t click-clack through the shift gate like some exotic sports coupe flitting about the Riviera? Armored tanks, steamrollers and threshers seem to do fine without dual-clutch 7-speed gearboxes. So do Terminators, a.k.a., Tom Thibodeau.

“We’re not changing,” Thibodeau said after the 108-95 victory over Orlando in the Bulls’ home finale. “We’re trying to win games. … We’re not changing our approach: Every game, analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not as well as we would like, make our corrections, move on to the next one, know the opponent well, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do.”

You could stump a few Chicagoans by asking to identify the source of the following quote: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Who said that: Michael Biehn‘s character in the original “Terminator?” Or a Bulls player, requesting anonymity, in describing Thibs?

Forward Taj Gibson didn’t take the unnamed route when he went there Monday.

“You guys have been around for a minute now,” Gibson, a top Sixth Man candidate, told reporters. “You guys should know that guy in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. He’s old school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward.

VIDEO: The passion of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau

“Like he said, ‘The finish line is ahead. You’ve got to just run through it. You can’t slow up, you can’t try to trot through. You’ve got to run full speed ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.’ He told us, ‘We want to walk through the fire together as a team, as a unit. Nobody’s going to take that from you. You’ve just got to keep walking through it. Don’t stop for anything.’ ”

OK, so there’s no ring collection in the Chicago locker room. Backup center Nazr Mohammed is the only player to have reached The Finals, never mind win the title, and the Bulls’ collection of Larry O’Brien trophies has fit on the same shelf for 16 years now.

But then, Thibodeau and his crew aren’t preachy about their relentless ways – heck, it might scare off some free agents the way tales of Pat Riley‘s taped, full-contact, two-hour “shootarounds” used to. Grinding steadily forward simply is what has worked for Chicago.

There really wasn’t much choice, after the long-anticipated return of MVP candidate Derrick Rose ended just 10 games in. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury and the subsequent trade of All-Star Luol Deng threatened to do more than just slam shut this Bulls edition’s championship window. It had some fans luridly licking their chops over lottery slots. They, of course, were the ones who know nothing about Thibodeau.

The Bulls are 21-8 since the All-Star break and 34-17 since trading Deng in early January. Their defense is a constant, the relentless embodiment of their head coach. And though Chicago ranks ranks 28th in offensive rating (102.7), the Bulls lately have been almost breezy, scoring 100 points or more in five of their past seven.

With Gibson and Joakim Noah developing as scoring options, with shooter Mike Dunleavy moving into a starting spot up front and with D.J. Augustin dusting off his career as Thibodeau’s latest point-guard reclamation project, the offense has hit triple digits 14 times in its 29 post-break games vs. 11 times in the 52 before it.

Their 100-89 loss Sunday in New York snapped a seven-game winning streak, but at least it wasn’t the result of guessing at the Indiana-Miami flip-flopping atop the conference and trying to game the playoff seedings. If anything the Bulls Game 7 everything.

“It’s made us who we are,” guard Kirk Hinrich said after the Magic victory. “That’s just kind of the makeup of this group and the beliefs that [Thibodeau] goes by. Us as players, there’s something to be said about just coming in, preparing. You feel prepared, you’re confident, and that goes a long way.”

Dunleavy occasionally has rolled his eyes at the work-load demands he has faced under Thibodeau. Then again, the 6-foot-9 forward didn’t play on a .500 team in his first 11 NBA seasons, so he’s not complaining.

“Playing with high intensity like we do all year helps,” he said. “I certainly am going to keep the same approach in the playoffs. It’s just another game because I think we prepare for every regular-season game like it’s a playoff game. That’s the way we’ve been doing it, and hopefully we roll right through in terms of smoothness and transition into the postseason.”

Roll? Typically by this time each spring, the Bulls are limping and bleeding. Once the smoke and smell of sulfur from Rose’s latest demise cleared, though, the rest of the roster got and largely has remained healthy. As hard as Thibodeau pushes, they have become true believers in the ol’ “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ethos.

“We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities,” Noah said. “We think we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give them hell.”

Forty-eight minutes of it, sometimes served up that way per man (see Jimmy Butler, 2013 postseason). All in one gear, at one speed.


  1. Rust says:

    “OK, so there’s no ring collection in the Chicago locker room. Backup center Nazr Mohammed is the only player to have reached The Finals, never mind win the title, and the Bulls’ collection of Larry O’Brien trophies has fit on the same shelf for 16 years now.”

    Nazr was on the Spurs 04-05 team, so he got the ring

  2. okc2014 says:

    It’s unbelievable how far the Chicago Bulls have come. The night Derrick Rose went down, I’ll be he first to admit, I gave up on them. Look at them now. I’m impressed. And I wish them the best. And I would love to see Carmello Anthony there next season. I’m not going to make a comment about Mike and his Phoenix Suns rant. Cause I’m glad the Hawks made the playoffs. They limped there and still made it. It’s the Leastern Conference, what do you expect? LOL

  3. Heknowshissport you are right my friend! J Kidd is smart coach and abit out of the box with his coaching tactics- spilling water on the floor to run a final play ect. The Nets didnt want to win this game and didnt want to play Chicago 1st round. I say Smart move

  4. guseryre says:

    Patty Mills and Bellinelli have been two most useful additions. The Spurs are are a better team this year than last year. For the NBA title no team can threathen them but the OKC maybe. hot in

  5. If the Nets lose on purpose and let the Wizards get the 5th seed then the Bulls will get to the second round. But if they play the Nets in the second round it is over for Chicago. Check this truth-telling video Adam Silver: The Poor Man’s David Stern aka The Rigging Master

  6. Tom Thibodeau says:

    Oh man, I can’t wait for the playoffs because I think the bulls unlike the prior years in the playoffs were demoralized by injuries and in my opinion were kind of afraid to shoot or attack the basketball. Now I feel everyone is working together and trying to score while maintaining the defensive mindset. It’s not going to be easy going against the Nets as they are full of talent but I’m sure the bulls will make it difficult. Win or lose I’m proud to these guys for grinding out games every night. I know Thibs disagrees but we are going to need Jimmer Freddette for offense. Lets go BULLS!!!

  7. BlakeG says:

    @Mike we understand that it is a joke and the people who read the blog on the grizzlies clinching the final playoff spot probably appreciated your comment because it was suited to the article. Stop being ridiculous and posting this on every article, what is it accomplishing? Everyone thinks the same thing as you pretty much anyway and people who dont surely arent going to be convinced by you putting this everywere.

  8. Beth says:

    It’s easy to suggest that the Bulls play only one speed (pedal to the metal), but a closer look this year reveals more subtlety. Minutes per player are down, Thibs has very set rotations with deliberate and balanced play, and the speed most certainly goes up and down through the game. They are a much better 4th quarter team this year. Okay– I’ll say it– Thibs is getting better as a coach. He is learning to adjust the throttle. Bulls still need more offense but the defense is pretty much perfect. Whatever happens this year, it has been a great season. This summer, any FA who wants to win should really look at this team for next year. Go Bulls.

  9. RICHARD says:

    The Bulls, are primed for a very good playoff run. They play the best defense in the NBA, which is what wins in the playoffs. If the Bulls can get into any kind of offensive groove……..WATCH OUT !!!!!!!!!!

  10. Mike says:

    I know this has nothing to do with the Bulls… BUT: The Phoenix Suns’ season proves how much of a joke the Eastern conference is. I think the NBA should seriously reconsider its Conference format when a losing team like Atlanta (37-44) can make the playoffs and the Suns (47-34) miss out. When a team is called a “playoff team” it’s generally implied that they are one of the best teams in the league. Sadly, the Hawks will be remembered as a playoff team, and the Suns will not. Is this fair?

    • Why would you post that here? says:

      Go to a Suns-related forum or blog and unleash your frustration there – don’t cry on a completely unrelated post please.

      On a more related note: Thibs always gets the job done, regardless of injuries. It shows how much he is appreciated as a coach when Deng came out with his post-Bulls gym experience with the Cavs. Don’t think Chicago will get far in the playoffs this year, but at the same time they won’t make it easy on anyone who has to face them.

    • Mike says:

      I’ve read 3 different articles now and you’ve posted on every single one about the Suns not making the playoffs lol

    • No Joke says:

      It may not be fair, but that’s the way the ball bounces.