- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau has been around professional basketball for well more than two decades. He has a passion for the game and the intricacies that separate the good players from the great ones. He studies compulsively to try to make sure his Chicago Bulls team always has an advantage when it steps onto the floor. That's why his praise of Miami Heat superstar LeBron James is so telling. When asked Saturday to compare James to another player he's watched or coached against in years past, Thibodeau didn't hesitate.
"Nobody," Thibodeau said.
"Because you're combining the speed, the power, the skills, the passing, the vision. I can't recall anyone that I've coached against that's like that. There's nothing that he doesn't do. He's great with the ball, great without the ball, can post, can drive, can shoot, can really pass. If you overcommit to him he's going to make you really pay. And he keeps getting better every year. So he's an all-time great."
Thibodeau always talks about how the Bulls must play team defense against a player like James. But the reality, as the veteran coach knows, is that it's much, much easier said than done as his team once against gets set to host James and the Heat on Sunday afternoon. James is the best player in the world, and he can take over the game virtually whenever he wants.
"The guy's 6-foot-9 and he's 280 pounds," Bulls center Joakim Noah said before a game against Miami in 2011. "And he can play the point guard. He's different. He's built different. He's pretty good, too."
The Bulls saw that again firsthand a couple weeks ago when they got throttled by the Heat in the second half of a game they would go on to lose. The performance infuriated Noah so much that he called out his entire team and the way the Bulls played. No matter how many times Thibodeau might try to downplay a matchup against the Heat, Noah and his teammates understand that these games always mean a little more.
"When we play the Miami Heat, our intensity has to be through the roof for 48 [minutes]," Noah said after the loss Feb. 23. "Regardless [if] shots are going in or not. Of course you want to win the game, but the way we're going to win is our edge -- our intensity has to be better than theirs throughout the game."
The fact that Miami has knocked out the Bulls in two of the past three postseasons is not lost on Thibodeau or his players. He liked the fire with which Noah spoke after that game, but he has always believed that actions speak much louder than words.
"You got to be ready to have the fight necessary to succeed," he said. "I think that we were disappointed that we didn't play 48 minutes against them. And we know that that's necessary in order to win. So hopefully we can bring better effort."
Effort isn't the only thing the Bulls will need Sunday. They need better execution as well. They've won 10 of their past 13 contests, but if they don't find ways to score and make the effort plays that have defined them under Thibodeau, James will find ways to break them down as he has done in the past. Thibodeau acknowledged that a case could be made that the Heat are a dynasty, having played in three consecutive NBA Finals and won two titles in a row.
The key for his team is to find the intensity that was missing in Miami. In order to do that, the Bulls must find a way to slow down James and stay in front of him. It's an assignment that Thibodeau hopes his team is ready for against the best player -- and the best team -- in the game.
"That's the challenge," he said. "In this league you're going to be challenged every day that you're in it. It doesn't matter who you are, if you're a player, coach, executive, first-year player, 15-year player -- it doesn't matter. You're going to be challenged and that's what brings out the best in people. So we're looking forward to it. We know they're tough on both ends of the floor and we got to be ready."
11hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
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