CHICAGO -- Brad Stevens hasn't been around the NBA long, but he's been around basketball long enough to know a great defense when he sees one. And what he saw in the fourth quarter Monday night against the Chicago Bulls was the latest example of Tom Thibodeau's master plan at work. The Bulls stifled Stevens' Boston Celtics -- not allowing the feisty group to get anything going in the final 12 minutes of a tight game. After his team managed just 10 points in the final frame of the 94-80 defeat, all Stevens could do was praise one of the toughest teams he's come across in recent memory.
"There is no easy offense against Chicago," Stevens said. "You need post-ups, good ball movement and layups, and we didn't have much of that tonight. They challenge shots better than most teams [and] along with Indiana, they are the elite of elite on defense."
For good measure, Stevens added that the Bulls have one of the toughest defenses he's ever coached against. It's the type of appreciation that has become the norm under Thibodeau. Whenever the Bulls are struggling to find a spark, they turn to their defense to help create offense. While it's usually Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson setting the trend on that front, they have come to expect contributions from players like Mike Dunleavy, who took several charges and added 22 points Monday, and Jimmy Butler, who chipped in 18 points and played his usual solid defense.
What makes the Bulls different than most teams is they don't have a go-to scorer to save them every night. Noah has played the best basketball of his career this season, but as Thibodeau points out, it takes a group effort for the Bulls to win games. That's what made Monday's victory even more impressive. Like most teams in the league, the Bulls are a tired group as they head into the final two weeks of the regular season. That's what happens at the end of an 82-game grind, and that's why the Bulls take more pride in finishing off contests the way they did against the Celtics.
"I just felt like tonight in the fourth, we kind of wore them down," Dunleavy said. "They had a lot of energy. They were all over the place the first few quarters, and we just kind of wore them down in the fourth, and, eventually, our style prevailed. That's what it came down to. You always want to be at your best in the fourth, and that's what we were tonight."
It's a trait that will serve the Bulls well as they head into the playoffs. They know they aren't always going to shoot well, but they understand that they can always execute their defensive game plan and win games in other ways. They trust themselves and the system, and that's clear when hearing the pride with which they speak of their season. For Dunleavy, his appreciation comes in a different form. After spending more than a decade in the league, he knows how special it is to be in a system that works the way Thibodeau's does on a nightly basis.
"It's been a hectic, crazy, unpredictable year," Dunleavy said. "But it's been very rewarding. Very, very rewarding. Things haven't gone for me as well as I'd like, [as far as] just really putting the ball in the basket, but, overall, it's been a great group to be a part of, we've fought and battled like heck and it's by far been my most rewarding season as a pro."
The same could be said for D.J. Augustin, who has enjoyed a career resurgence in Thibodeau's system. He was 1-for-9 on the night but managed to impact the game in other ways -- notably the fact that he dished out 11 assists -- a feat that left Butler happily yelling "Tim Hardaway" as he walked past Augustin's locker on the way to the showers.
The players understand they have created a special culture, but they know the bedrock of that foundation is within the defensive side, not the offense.
"Just our intensity on defense," Augustin said of the fourth-quarter push. "Rebounding. Our focus is different in the fourth quarter. We just had to lock in. The fourth quarter is winning time, so that's what we pretty much do: We lock in."
Augustin and his teammates have made a habit of that over the past three months, and the difference has showed in one of the most unlikely midseason turnarounds in recent memory.