CHICAGO -- As the final seconds wound down in the Chicago Bulls' first preseason game on Friday night, Tom Thibodeau wore the look of disgust. His team was comfortably ahead and the game was well in hand, but the veteran coach looked like he was about to rip somebody in half in the locker room.
The Bulls had just given up an uncontested dunk and Thibodeau wasn't about to let that go unnoticed. He wants his team to play 48 minutes, after all. Even if the game was basically over, he couldn't let something like that slide.
"Your first game, you've got to establish who you are," he said about 20 minutes later while addressing the media. "And so, what our identity is, is not going to be based on what happened last year. We have to re-establish who we are this year. This is the first step."
As Thibodeau likes to say, you can't skip steps. That's why anyone who believes the second-year coach will struggle keeping the team's focus during this lockout-shortened season is crazy. Thibodeau has watched enough tape over the past six months to make the average person's eyes bleed. He is ready to take the Bulls to the next step, and he's ready to do it this season.
The players realize that and that's why no matter how hard Thibodeau pushes them over the course of the next few months, they are probably going to listen.
"You can't really say nothing too bad about him," Bulls center Joakim Noah said a couple weeks ago. "Because you know he's in here working very hard every day."
The big question for the hard charging, raspy voiced leader is whether he will know when and where to step off the gas pedal throughout the season. His players believe he'll make the right calls, on and off the floor.
"He always demands that you're there mentally," Bulls guard Kyle Korver said recently. "There is no exceptions. There is no days off. There's no relaxation. He was good last year; As tough as he is and as demanding as he is, we might be here for a long time, but three fourths of it will be watching film or something like that. Where he's going to give our legs a break. He knows. He's been around the NBA for a long time."
Thibodeau has already been through a lockout shortened season, as an assistant with the New York Knicks during the 1999-2000 season, so he realizes the type of hectic schedule that he and his team will be on. Knowing Thibodeau, he already has each day planned out in detail.
"The one thing, when you’re faced with a season like this, you have to maximize your time, your team meetings, your shootarounds," Thibodeau said recently. "Your concentration level has to be extremely high because the one thing is when you’re looking at a number of back-to-backs and things like that, your practice time is very limited, so you have to make the most of that time. It also affects your rest because now if you play a back-to-back, the next day you may look at as a practice day but maybe now you’ll be taking that day off."
In order to be successful this season, Thibodeau has to find the right balance between when to push and when to pull back. He knows he can't run his team into the ground with too much work and that's one of the reasons he had the Bulls order a whole set of exercise bikes so that the team could have a film session together at the Berto Center and get their cardio work in at the same time.
Like his players, Thibodeau knows he can be a little bit better in his second year than he was in his first. Not surprisingly, he said he spent time watching last season's games and visiting with fellow coaches to pick up some new ideas.
"You're always striving to improve in whatever it is that you're doing," Thibodeau said. "I never want to stay the same. I know our players don't. Our entire organization is the same way. You learn from each experience."
The biggest experience Thibodeau can learn from last season is to find a way to make Carlos Boozer more active on the defensive end. It's the biggest challenge on the coach's never ending to do list this year and it's the one that is probably most crucial to the Bulls' long term success. If Thibodeau can find a way to do that, and continue to grow as a leader during the next six months, there's a very good chance he won't have much to complain about after this season.
How could you complain after leading your team to a title?