- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau's reign as coach of the Chicago Bulls has been defined by consistency. No matter who is on the floor, no matter who is injured, no matter what the circumstances are, his teams usually find a way to win.
He and his players have created a standard within the organization to demand more success. Thibodeau's approach doesn't change; he plays his cards close to the vest, and he usually plays the same cards over and over again until he gets a winner.
The relentlessness that has set him apart from other coaches around the league is being viewed differently after the Bulls dropped their first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to the Washington Wizards. The narrative regarding Thibodeau's passion has changed; now he's just being viewed as stubborn.
After watching the Bulls' inept late-game offense struggle again in Tuesday night's Game 2 loss -- to the tune of four made field goals in the final 12:16 of the game -- Thibodeau's frustration finally boiled to the surface. He chafed at the suggestion that he might consider rotation changes immediately after Game 2, and he balked again when the topic of Carlos Boozer's minutes came up after Wednesday's practice.
"The group that's in there, Taj [Gibson] is playing well," Thibodeau said. "Whenever you say, put someone else in, you're taking someone else out. Who you taking out? Joakim [Noah]? Who you taking out? Taj? Everyone has a job to do. Just do your job."
The interesting part of Thibodeau's exchange is that he rarely allows that frustration to become public. He is very aware of what media members say and write about what he does during the season, but he usually keeps those opinions to himself. He doesn't let his guard down.
It's not that Thibodeau hasn't been questioned before. It's just that those criticisms are few and far between because of how often he has won over the past four seasons. The difference now is that, for the first time in Thibodeau's tenure, fans and media are openly questioning his ways with more aggression, as the Bulls have fallen into a hole against the Wizards that many thought they would never be in.
The Wizards are a young, talented team not to be taken lightly, but they were still the underdog in this series. They were a team most pundits believed the Bulls would find a way to get past.
Over the past four years, the Bulls have relished playing the role of underdog. Thibodeau and his players thrived off the idea that people doubted them. Now, for the first time, they are in unfamiliar territory -- the favorite that can't figure out how to close down the upstart team.
In 2011, the Bulls won two series and then fell to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In 2012, Derrick Rose's knee injury, combined with Joakim Noah's ankle injury, derailed any championship hopes the Bulls had in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. In 2013, the Bulls upset the Brooklyn Nets, even without Luol Deng (illness) and Kirk Hinrich (calf injury) for most of the series, before falling to James and the Heat again.
The point is the Bulls always had an excuse for the way they finished. Aside from 2012, in which catastrophic injuries to their most important players changed the course of the season, they always lost to a better team.
Expectations have changed. Thibodeau and Noah have led the Bulls on an unexpected resurgence this season. The Bulls lost Rose and Deng yet still found a way to turn around their season.
But the first two games of this series have exposed the flaws Thibodeau and his staff have worked so hard to hide. As has been the case in the past three postseasons, the Bulls still don't have enough elite-level scoring to win games.
Instead of praising Thibodeau for the job he did to get his team to this point, fans and media have criticized the way he's handled his rotations. Is he beyond criticism? No. Does he deserve to be second-guessed for some of his decisions? Absolutely.
But when you start to break down this roster, it's easier to see why Thibodeau has made the decisions that he has over the first two games in the fourth quarter and overtime.
He's not going to take out D.J. Augustin, the only player on his roster who can consistently create his own shot and open up space for his teammates. Noah and Gibson have been defensive stalwarts all season for one of the best defenses in the league. That leaves four players for two spots since Tony Snell, Nazr Mohammed, Jimmer Fredette, Ronnie Brewer and Mike James haven't seen much time all season and aren't going to suddenly crack the rotation.
Jimmy Butler has taken over Deng's role as Bulls' iron man on both ends of the floor -- although he has looked exhausted at various points in recent games. Hinrich, who was signed to be Rose's backup, has started playing more minutes but has never been the type of shooter the Bulls could count on late. Boozer is still good for 12-15 points in most games, but Thibodeau simply doesn't trust him on the defensive end. Mike Dunleavy has been solid for the Bulls most of the season, but like most shooters he can be streaky and isn't as consistent defensively compared to Butler and Hinrich.
With those options in mind, Thibodeau must watch tape of his offense sputtering late and shake his head. While fans beg him to make a change, the reality is there aren't many changes to make. Boozer was terrible in Game 2 and is a liability on defense.
So the question becomes: Are the Bulls better served having Dunleavy on the floor in place of Butler or Hinrich?
That's really the only major change Thibodeau can make because Augustin, Noah and Gibson aren't coming off the floor. That also makes it easier to understand why Thibodeau is more outwardly frustrated than usual. He took a roster that wasn't supposed to do much and turned it into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. He and his players changed the outlook on the season. The problem is that now the prism is viewed differently, the criticism more biting than it has been in recent memory.
Does Thibodeau deserve blame? Absolutely. Is he too stubborn sometimes? No doubt about it.
The heavy minutes he has played his rotation in recent months, especially in regard to Butler, seem to be taking their toll over the past two games.
But the dark truth for this Bulls roster is that Thibodeau was always a mastermind at hiding what was ailing his team the most. Now the playoff lights are so bright that every flaw is exposed. The Bulls' biggest deficiency isn't that the rotation is shorter than usual; it's that Thibodeau, one of the best coaches in the NBA, doesn't have a solution for what is ailing his team the most these days -- and he knows it.
"We've got to make our shots," he said after Wednesday's practice. "We looked at our shots. I thought our screening was good. It's a make-or-miss league. If you're open, take your shot. When D.J. is pulling up for an open 3 and he misses, those are the shots he has made all year. You're not going to say, 'D.J., don't shoot that.' He has made that all year. Kirk comes off a double screen on the weak side wide open. He has made that shot all year. He has been a big shot-maker from 3 all year in the fourth quarter. They have their shots, I want them taking them. No hesitation. Shoot the ball."
As Thibodeau watches the misses pile up, the frustration becomes even more overwhelming. The usually unflappable coach is left searching for a different ending to a story that appears to be coming to a close.
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