NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Thibodeau gets so excited, so nervous, so into the game that his team is involved in that his right hand usually shakes continuously during the game.
For the veteran coach, the constant motion in his hand must serve as a type of stress reliever; he so desperately wants his team to do well that the twitch must ease the nerves just a little bit. After the Bulls gave up 53 points to the New Orleans Hornets in the first half, those nerves had to be frazzled.
In the final game of a two-week, five-game road trip, his team looked like it was ready to pack it in and go home. But Thibodeau wouldn't allow his players to settle for anything less than the high standard he has set for them. They made the proper adjustments in the second half and limited the Hornets to just 35 points for the rest of the game, proving once again that this Bulls team has completely bought into the defensive principles that the veteran coach has been selling since he was hired in the summer.
"We take pride in our defense," Thibodeau said after his team's 97-88 win. "And we know that to be a really good team and to be the type of team we want to be we have to be consistent with that. We're still not where we want to be and there's a lot of work to do, and you never have it all figured out, so it's something that we've got to work on every day. We got to keep trying to build the habits that allow us to be successful so when you go on the road, or the nights in which you're not shooting well, you still have a chance to win. The Utah game I thought our defense was a lot better. And I thought tonight our defense was solid, but we still have a lot of work to do in that area."
Pride may not even be the right word as far as Thibodeau is concerned when describing how he feels about his team's defense. Passion may be more like it. He realizes that his team is learning how to shut down games on the defensive end of the floor, and he enjoys the progression that it's making.
That's why he is so demonstrative on the sideline and seems as if any minute he could barrel on the floor. That's why his hand shakes. Thibodeau knows the big secret in the NBA -- he knows that if you want to win championships, you've got to be able to play defense. While the Bulls may not be at that kind of level yet, he knows they are on the right track. So do his players.
"We have a lot of confidence," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "We know our first thing is defense. Our offense is fine, we're going to score, we got guys that can put the ball in the hoop. But when our defense is there we're really tough to beat and we're starting to realize that. And we've been playing great D. I thought we had two games that we didn't play great D, but like I said before, even when we lost two games, it's no time to panic. It's no point in worrying, we've been playing great and things like that are going to happen. It's a long season."
The confidence the players have in their defense speaks volumes to the way they have listened to Thibodeau throughout the season.
"With Thibs, you don't get complacent," Bulls guard Ronnie Brewer said. "You're always trying to work to get better. You're never really content where you're at, so every day we work on it and it can always get better. So that's our motive and that's how we approach every game."
In terms of approach, nobody has seemed more focused on the defensive end more than Derrick Rose over the past two games. After being called out by Portland swingman Nicolas Batum on Monday night for his lack of defense, Rose has stopped Utah guard Deron Williams and New Orleans guard Chris Paul in consecutive games. The pair was just a combined 8-for-23 in both games. While Rose has continuously tried to downplay the comments, there's little doubt they had an impact on him.
"I'm not even paying attention to what [Batum] said," Rose said. "I know that with our defense and the way we've been playing, I'm not worried about that. With our defense, we over-help with everything so if one guy is out of place our whole defense is out of place. And we've just been getting on right page right now, getting on the right rhythm, where a guy is driving we're stepping in front taking charges trying to go for the block. And in the Portland game and the other game that we lost [against Golden State] we weren't doing that."
Now they are. But you can bet that Thibodeau, ever the perfectionist, won't let his team rest on its laurels. Or the fact they just completed another West Coast trip with a winning record.
"We're not caught up in the record as much as we are looking at where we are," Thibodeau said. "And are we getting better? And are we improving? And are we making the necessary steps? And we feel if we do the right things the results will take care of themselves. We feel that we're a lot better than we were a month ago and we know that to be a really good team that we're going to have to continue to improve as we go forward."