DEERFIELD, Ill. -- As the Chicago Bulls get set for what could be their last stand of the season Tuesday night in Game 5 against the Washington Wizards, Tom Thibodeau's message to his players was clear as they fight for their playoff lives.
Stop getting bullied. Fight back.
Over the first four games of this series, the Wizards have been the team setting the tone on both ends of the floor most of the time. It's a reality the Bulls coach doesn't want his players dealing with anymore.
"They're trying to be a bully to us," Bulls guard D.J. Augustin said after Monday's practice. "Come out and punch us in the mouth early. So we've got to come out and jump on them early. When we do that we usually win games."
When the Bulls don't do that, they end up in the kind of situation they're in right now -- on the brink of the end of their season. For all the "fight" and "edge" Thibodeau and his players always talk about, they fell flat in a major way during Game 4. Once again, they were outplayed from the beginning and couldn't catch up. The problem for the Bulls is that they don't seem to have an answer for why they keep getting punched in the mouth by the Wizards.
"I don't know," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "I really don't know. I'm on the bench looking just like you. We cut [the Wizards' lead] to like six [in Game 4], but when you drain so much energy just fighting out of that big hole early, it's kind of hard to come out. We just need a really good, strong start."
The Bulls are saying all the right things when it comes to getting back on track, they just aren't following through on them when the game begins. They look and sound like a mentally and physically drained group, which is exactly why what they say should be taken with a grain of salt.
"Just pick up our energy level," Gibson said. "Come out with the right kind of spunk. We're giving them too much confidence early and a team like that, you can't give them confidence. You've got to try and slow them down any kind of way."
The one thing the Bulls can usually rely upon is their toughness. It's the main characteristic that has pushed them to so many victories over the past four years under Thibodeau. But to have the kind of toughness the Bulls usually display, they need energy, and that's a resource that's in short supply for them. They are getting beaten by a better team in this series, a younger and quicker team. To find a way back, Thibodeau must call upon all the pride his players have and convince them to keep pushing.
They've done it in the past, but not under these circumstances.
"I've been around our team," Thibodeau said. "This team's been up against it for two years. So all we're thinking about [Tuesday] is win the game. Win the game. Take it step by step. Don't get wrapped up in doomsday or any of that stuff, just think about what we have to do to win."