CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Thibodeau had a simple message for his team before it played in Wednesday night's game against the Charlotte Bobcats.
"Before the game, he was like, 'Be prepared to win,'" Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said.
Thibodeau didn't care about the fact it was the 82nd game of the regular season. He didn't care that the Bulls would be best served to land in the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff seedings and would avoid a possible second-round matchup with the Miami Heat. He didn't care that Butler had piled up plenty of minutes over the course of a long NBA season -- Thibodeau did not want to change the way he prepared his team to play at all.
"He told that to everybody," Butler said of the message. "He played guys -- he wanted to win the game. All those minutes, I think it was worth it. But, obviously, we didn't pull it out. We didn't win."
Butler sat in front of his locker stall with the same tired look on his face he usually has after games as he said this. The Bulls didn't beat the Bobcats, but Thibodeau's message was clear: The Bulls play to win every game. It is a belief that has defined him in his career and one he's not going to turn his back on now. The veteran coach knows he'll be criticized for his decisions, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care what fans think, he doesn't care what the media thinks, he doesn't care what some people in the organization think -- all Thibodeau cares about is doing what he thinks is best for his team at that given moment.
"I just didn't think we needed to do that," Thibodeau said when asked why he chose not to rest guys. "I think D.J. [Augustin] missed a game, so I think it was important for him to get minutes. Once you start resting guys, sometimes they get out of rhythm, and for us right now, I think our team is well rested. We've been concerned with rest for a while, and we've given our guys a lot of days off. So from the rest standpoint, I think we're in great shape. You want the rhythm, you want to be playing well, you got to be sharp."
Thibodeau can use all the cliches he wants, but the reality for the Bulls is that they caught a huge break. Not only did nobody get hurt in what turned out to be a meaningless game, the Bulls ended up as the No. 4 seed and will open the playoffs on Sunday night at the United Center in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Washington Wizards -- a team they are confident they can beat.
Just as important, the Bulls pushed away a potential matchup with the Heat until the conference finals, assuming they can get past the winner of the Indiana Pacers Atlanta Hawks series.
Thibodeau played with fire -- and he didn't get burned.
It's a mindset his players appreciate because of the hard work they have put into the season. They have bought in completely to what their coach is selling, and that's not going to change now.
"I would like to say I appreciate my teammates," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "For a hard season. We worked our asses off, even though it ends on a sad note, losing to the Charlotte Bobcats. Overall, I feel like we gave it everything we had, and there's no regrets in that. Now, like my boy Mike Dunleavy just told me, he said this is the fruit of our labor. Now we will have fun in the playoffs."
Noah said he wasn't surprised he played 42 minutes Wednesday. He has invested plenty of emotion into this season and believes in Thibodeau's message as much as any player. He was the one who said the Bulls weren't going to lose games on purpose to back their way into a seed -- a strategy Thibodeau can appreciate.
"This is the hardest season I think I've ever been a part of, physically and mentally," Noah said. "But I feel like overall [I'm] just really proud of everybody, just all the work that people put in. You could just tell after every practice, everybody was shooting after practice. Everybody putting in extra work to get their games in order.
"Now the playoffs is the icing on the cake. As competitors, that's what you want, you want to play in the playoffs. So I think we put ourselves in a pretty good position. And you know what? I'm really proud to be a part of this team. Seriously, because I've never been around a group of guys that work so hard."
That group includes Thibodeau. He's one of the top coaches in all of basketball. He maximizes the potential on his roster night after night and always brings the best out of his team. Whether a few extra minutes in a meaningless game ends up costing the Bulls down the line, it's hard to say. But that's the difference with Thibodeau -- he doesn't believe any game is meaningless -- he thinks each one has a purpose.
He proved it again to his team on Wednesday night -- but that still doesn't mean it wasn't a gamble. Either way, it was a gamble he was willing to live with.