Chicago Bulls: Tom Thibodeau
An MRI revealed that Butler has nothing more serious than a strain after he aggravated an injury Tuesday night that he first suffered in Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic.
Butler’s status for Thursday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers remains unknown, according to coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler was not available for comment Wednesday, although he was at the Bulls’ practice facility receiving treatment.
“It’s just sore,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a lot of contact in an NBA game.”
Butler leads the Bulls in minutes per game at 39.3, and his commitment to defense makes his time on the court that much more grueling.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do; it’s his job,” Thibodeau said of Butler’s all-out style. “It shouldn’t be unusual. That’s what everyone should be doing. If you’re playing to win, you know, the NBA, it’s contact, it’s body on body. There’s no getting around that.”
Butler remains scheduled to participate in Saturday’s All-Star Skills Challenge and in Sunday’s All-Star Game in New York City.
Thibodeau mourns Tark
Thibodeau remembered Jerry Tarkanian fondly, especially from the time the two worked together for a short stint with the San Antonio Spurs in the early 1990s. Tarkanian died Wednesday at age 84.
“An all-time great coach, great person and believed in giving people second chances,” Thibodeau said. “The run that he had throughout, to win the way he won his entire career, says how great he is. I had an opportunity to coach Larry Johnson and was around a lot of players who played for him. The way they talked about him and the way he cared about them, even when they were done playing, tells you a lot about him.”
Gasol is LeBron foe, then friend
Bulls forward Pau Gasol has a unique opportunity this week, first to start a game against LeBron James and then start a game with him.
The Bulls play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday. On Sunday, Gasol and James will start for the East squad at the All-Star Game.
“Right now I see him as an opponent and a team that I want to beat badly, that we need to beat badly as a team,” Gasol said after practice Wednesday. “They're a direct opponent and threat. They play tonight, this will be a back-to-back for them tomorrow, so we've got to make sure we get it done.”
The Bulls are tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference at 33-20, but the Cavaliers are rising fast in fifth place at 32-21.
“They've won 13 out of 14, right?” Gasol said. “They're playing well. They have a lot of threats out there. We've just got to play them tough. We know who they are and what they do.”
This and that
Kirk Hinrich (turf toe) did not participate in practice Wednesday and is not expected to play against the Cavaliers on Thursday. ... Mike Dunleavy, who returned to action Tuesday after missing 19 games with an injured right ankle, was feeling fine and is expected to play Thursday.
In the NBA, home is supposed to be where teams can build a little momentum for the path ahead. And then there are the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls have been a grab bag when it comes to home games this season. Head-scratching home defeats to the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat have brought questions about the team’s focus during what has been an unpredictable season.
Now, with a six-game road trip complete, the Bulls have a chance to establish some home dominance before heading into the All-Star break. The Sacramento Kings are up first Tuesday night, followed by Thursday’s challenge of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How will the Bulls be feeling about themselves when the break arrives this weekend?
“Yeah, I just think for us it’s to concentrate on the improvement,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of his 32-20 team that is a pedestrian 13-11 at home. “We have to do better; it’s not good enough. But it starts with the next game, it starts with the shootaround, and then coming in tonight and getting ready to play. And hopefully we can build moving forward.”
The Kings look like just the team the Bulls need for their return to the United Center for the first time since the Heat defeat on Jan. 25. The Kings fired coach Michael Malone in December and interim coach Tyrone Corbin hasn’t been much better for the team.
Then again, this is just the kind of sneak-attack scenario that has given the Bulls so much trouble in their own arena. There already is enough potential distraction with the break looming after such a long road trip.
“The important thing is to not get locked into thinking about the All-Star break and all that stuff,” Thibodeau said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a routine established, how you get ready to play and how you practice. Are you putting everything you have into each and every practice? Do you study your opponent as well as you should? Then we need to count on guys to go out there and do their job together. That’s important.”
In Thibodeau’s mind, the Kings’ situation isn’t all that different from issues the Bulls have experienced like the defensive problems, questions of effort and the various physical ailments that have continued to surface.
“There is something (to distract) all the time and that’s why it’s important to establish the discipline, and what are your values?” Thibodeau said. “Whether it’s your schedule, there is trade talk, there’s all kind of things. Coaching (situations). So if you want to, you can choose to use an excuse every night or you can choose to get it done no matter what the circumstances are. For us, just get ready. We have to think about ourselves and take care of our issues to be ready to play.”
HOUSTON -- Long after most of his teammates had showered, dressed and made their way out of the quiet visitors locker room inside Toyota Center late Wednesday night, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah sat with his eyes closed and his hands pushed together, still dressed in his game shorts.
A few more minutes went by as Noah alternated between staring off into space and checking the harsh box score returns of his team's third loss in a row, a 101-90 defeat to the Houston Rockets.
As has been the case throughout the season, the Bulls looked lifeless throughout stretches of this game. Like seemingly everyone else within the Bulls' locker room, Noah wasn't sure what the exact issue has been lately for a team that has championship aspirations.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau believes the key to getting his team back on track is to start practicing better. He mentioned practice, and the repetition that comes with it, several times after his team's latest lackluster performance.
"The thing for us is it's not one guy," Thibodeau said. "We have a lot of guys that have been out, and so we're trying to overcome that. And it's tough, it's not easy, but that's our deal. That's what we got to do."
The Bulls haven't fallen off the train yet, but the tires are starting to shred a little underneath them. Their most tangible deficiencies lie on the defensive end. Thibodeau said before the game that "our defense is ahead of the offense when you look at efficiency."
But the eye test, and some compelling defensive numbers, tell a different story. The Bulls came into Wednesday's game having given up the most points of the Thibodeau era, by a large margin. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bulls allowed 97.2 points per 100 possessions through the first 50 games in 2010-11, Thibodeau's first season. They gave up 96 through their first 50 in 2011-12, 98.8 through their first 50 in 2012-13, 98.1 through their first 50 in 2013-14 and 102.4 through their first 49 in 2014-15.
On the flip side, this season the Bulls are scoring 105 points per 100 possessions, slightly below their best under Thibodeau -- 105.7 in 2011-12 -- and eight points better than 2013-14.
Playing hard and tough was never an issue for this group under Thibodeau, but it has become one this season. So why now?
"I guess early in the year you [build up] enough confidence, everybody's just constantly telling you how good you are, how good you are, how good you are," forward Taj Gibson said. "And then we believe that we're a strong, offensive-minded team now. Everybody's picked up their game a lot. But I don't know, it's just that when your jump shot is hitting, it's just human nature. Whenever you make a point or you hit a jumper -- or anything offensively -- you just relax on defense, and I think that's what mainly happens with us. But we just got to change it."
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose believes his team needs to play with more energy.
"Just the effort," Rose said. "Effort and lack of communication on the defensive side. I've been saying this for a couple of weeks now but it's so true. Teams have 10-0, 13-0 runs against us, and we got to find a way to stop that."
"We got to be consistent," Gasol said. "We haven't really found consistency all year long. I think it's not a matter of effort; I think it's just a matter of working together, communicating and getting it done, getting the job done.
"Figuring out what needs to be done individually, what needs to be done collectively, and we all have to kind of look ourselves in the mirror and see what we are doing that's working, what could we do differently? Because obviously, right now, we're not playing at our best and we need to get wins if we don't want to fall off the train."
What the Bulls have found out through 50 games -- maybe what they've learned most about themselves over a tumultuous four-week stretch -- is that talk is cheap. Players keep talking about how they'll be able to turn things around and how they'll find a way to start playing better together soon. While that still might be the case, especially if they get Mike Dunleavy (right ankle) back soon, the reality for the Bulls is that they are more than halfway through the season and two truths have appeared:
1. They are not very good defensively.
2. They do not play as hard as consistently as they did during the past four seasons.
That said, this is the most talented team they've had in five seasons.
"We've got more than enough," Gibson said. "This is one of the most talented teams I've been on over the years. I look back to the team when we went to the Eastern Conference finals. This team is way more capable. We just need more determination. Plus, we need guys healthy. You look at how important Mike Dunleavy is to our team as we're going through all these games and you look at guys [who] have to adjust to other positions and learn the positions. Like Niko [Nikola Mirotic] has to learn the 3, has to guard 3s. And Kirk [Hinrich] has to guard 3s and 2s. It's tough out there."
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls aren't as bad as they played in Sunday afternoon's deflating 96-84 loss to the Miami Heat.
But they aren't as good as they played in wins over the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks a few days ago. They are caught in the middle of an emotional rut that they can't pull themselves out of just yet.
"We just got to do better," said Pau Gasol in a quiet Bulls locker room. "I don't know if there's a straight explanation for it.
"We understand the importance of every game, especially here at home, we're trying to do better. We're trying to get ourselves going and get some kind of momentum."
But just when it appears the Bulls are gaining some momentum, they take another big step back. In hindsight, that's why Sunday's loss shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Bulls, who are now just 13-11 at home, continue to struggle playing with a consistent effort at the United Center. They sleepwalk through too many games against sub-.500 teams and then try to fight back when it's too late. It's a trend that this proud group can't seem to shake.
On a broader level, the Bulls are still adjusting to their expectations before the season. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have always thrived as the underdog. They enjoy proving people wrong and winning games that many don't think they can win. But this season, they have excelled at finding ways to lose those games.
They don't play with the same fire against teams they believe they can beat, a fact that the players have admitted to throughout the season.
"It's a number of things," said Bulls power forward Taj Gibson. "[We] tend to get too lax at home. We got to have the right kind of energy. Sometimes I just think that in our head we think that we're good enough that we'll just step on the court [and win], and it's tough.
"Teams are out here gunning for us. [There's] a lot of speculation about how good we can be and how good we are and teams take pride in that and try to beat us, see how far they can go. We just got to learn from it, that's the only thing."
That's the only thing the Bulls can do at this point. They've got to continue learning from their mistakes. They've got to keep learning from each other. The belief was that Tuesday's team meeting put all the issues on the table for the Bulls. The feeling was that the players said what they had to say to Thibodeau and vice versa -- but everyone in the group was back on the same page. However, Sunday proved that all the issues haven't been corrected yet.
Now the Bulls embark on a six-game road stretch that will be split into two separate trips over the course of the next two weeks. They won't be favored in Tuesday's showdown against the Golden State Warriors, so they won't have to worry about playing down to their competition. But at some point they are going to have to figure out how to play with more passion against teams they should beat, especially at home.
The issue has moved past the point of being a trend this season -- now it's just a big problem.
When asked about that problem, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose offered a common refrain that sums up the feeling within the Bulls' locker room on Sunday.
"I really don't know," Rose said. "If I had an answer I swear I'd tell you, but I just don't know."
DALLAS -- Joakim Noah knew his team was stuck at a gigantic fork in the road.
After another embarrassing defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night, the Chicago Bulls' sixth in their past eight games, the emotional center knew his team's entire season was headed in the wrong direction. The Bulls weren't fighting hard together, they weren't communicating enough on the floor and the hard-nosed defense which had defined them over the past four seasons went missing.
Noah, who was sitting out the Cavs game because of a sprained right ankle, knew that neither he nor his team was having any fun. The Bulls held a team meeting on Tuesday and talked about the issues they were having, but nobody knew whether airing out all the issues would have an impact on the floor.
Three days later, it appears that meeting might have saved the Bulls' season and gotten it back on track.
Noah, who returned to the lineup in Friday night's impressive 102-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks, after missing four games because of the ankle injury, wore the look of a proud and relieved older brother as he spoke after the game.
"I think when you go through adversity like that, you either go two ways," he said. "You either come together or you start to point fingers, and that's not who we are. At the end of the day, I think everybody wants to win here. It was definitely a humbling couple of weeks, but we just got to regroup and we still got work to do. We're not satisfied. We know we got to get better, and I think we're all more than capable of doing that."
But why did the message suddenly take? The Bulls always had talent, and they rattled off plenty of wins before their recent spiral. Why did it take so long for the players to buy into what they were trying to do together and get out of their funk?
Lots of things were said in that meeting. Veteran Pau Gasol said coach Tom Thibodeau encouraged players to say what was on their mind, but after watching the Bulls roll through the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night and then squeeze out an even more impressive road win over the Mavericks on Friday night, one of the subtle, noticeable differences in the short term is that Thibodeau has changed his tone toward his players a little bit.
The hard-charging coach still destroys referees all night, but he is not as outward with his criticism of his own players in recent days as he has been in years past. His players have always wondered whether the veteran coach could take his foot off the gas ever so slightly, a point undoubtedly touched upon in the meeting. In that regard, at least in the short term, it appears he has.
The Bulls players, coaches and executives aren't naïve enough to think two good wins are the cure-all for a team that struggled so mightily in recent weeks, but it's a hell of a start for a group that has regained a championship belief in itself. They have started better in games. Derrick Rose has been more aggressive to start those games, as evidenced by the fact he scored 13 of his 20 points in the first quarter and drove to the rim. But most importantly, they are playing better defense and appear more unified on the floor. Thibodeau is cautiously optimistic his team is mentally back where it needs to be.
"I think you got to be careful," Thibodeau said. "You just got to keep building. Because you play two games, you got to keep putting the intensity into it, the concentration into it. Don't feel good. The games will keep coming. We got a quick turnaround with Miami, but I like the direction we're moving in. The last three or four days have been very good and productive.
"The words are good, but the actions are better. So it's about the work."
The work is what has made Thibodeau one of the very best coaches in the league over the past five seasons, but it's the words spoken by him, and his players, that might have saved this season.
"Having meetings when things are not going well, I think it's positive because you hear everyone out and you understand we're all in the same boat and we all have to row together to get to port, get to land," Gasol said. "If we don't do that, we're just going to continue to not accomplish what we want to accomplish. So once that's said, now let's take action. Actions speak louder than words, and now we have to bring it to the floor. Now we have to prove what we are talking about -- to ourselves first and then to other people. I think that's kind of what happened."
CHICAGO -- Lost amid Derrick Rose's frustrated words after Monday night's latest poor performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers was the fact Taj Gibson may have spoken the most telling words of the entire night.
Gibson doesn't have the same clout that Rose does, but he is a six-year veteran who gives some of the most honest assessments in basketball. The power forward has been around for the entirety of Tom Thibodeau's five-year tenure with the Bulls, a fact that made his comments so telling in the wake of one of the worst stretches in the Thibodeau era.
"We got to practice harder," Gibson said. "We can't be taking days off. We're going to go through rough stretches, but we got to practice harder and we got to play with some energy."
A Thibodeau-coached team playing without energy and not working hard seems incomprehensible given the success that he and his team have enjoyed over his tenure. After all, hard work has defined Thibodeau's head-coaching career. For four years his players played hard almost every night. They played with a type of intensity and purpose that is not common on a nightly basis in the NBA.
But why, after the Bulls rattled off 13 wins in 15 games last month, would things suddenly take such a turn for the worse? Why would a team that usually plays so hard start rolling over and not fighting back for long stretches? Why would a team defined by intensity go long stretches without showing any?
"That's a great question," Thibodeau said. "We're going to continue to look at it. [We have] a lot of moving parts, hard to build continuity. We have to find some continuity. Maybe we look at different people. I'm going to think about it, study the film, and try to come up with some answers."
One of the strangest parts about the Bulls' recent slide is that neither Thibodeau nor his players seem to have any concrete answers how to fix the problem. Over the years when tough times arose for Thibodeau or his players, they just worked harder.
"The magic is in the work," the veteran coach is fond of saying.
But that doesn't appear to be the answer these days for a Bulls squad that is feeling the red-hot spotlight that comes with championship expectations.
If the Bulls aren't working as hard as they used to and they can't seem to find the right answer to fix their problems, the natural follow up is: Are the players tuning out Thibodeau?
As frustrated as Thibodeau makes them at times, and as much of a taskmaster as he can be, there isn't the sense that he has lost his team. His players hate his guts sometimes, but they are too proud to quit on him now. Rose, Gibson and Joakim Noah have invested way too much of their professional careers in Thibodeau's system to stop playing hard in the middle of a season.
They believe they can win a title with this group and they remain confident they can turn this around once they get fully healthy. If Thibodeau's principles have taught his players anything over the past five years, it's that they can't quit when times get tough.
"It comes from within," Gibson said. "There's nothing more you can say. It's all about how much heart you have and how determined you're going to be. Like Thibs said before, we got to practice harder. We can't take days off.
"Like Thibs said, everybody's got to put a little bit more into the jar."
If Rose, Noah and Gibson lead the way, the rest of their teammates will follow. If they decide to stop playing for Thibodeau, their teammates will follow that example as well. But if the latter occurs, it would fly in the face of all the hard work the three men have put in together over the past five years, especially the strong bond that Noah and Gibson have built within the city playing without Rose the past few years.
Thibodeau is by no means above criticism, and will become the fall guy for this team if he can't get his group out of the recent funk that it is in. But he is too solid of a coach, and his players have invested too much into his program, to believe that they will continue playing as poorly as they have over the past couple of weeks.
But as the Bulls reach the halfway point of their season Friday night against the Boston Celtics, that defensive prowess has gone missing for too many long stretches, even as the Bulls have raced out to a 26-14 record. The offensive depth is better than it has ever been under Thibodeau, thanks to the return of Derrick Rose and the additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks. But the defense, the perceived staple of any Thibodeau team, looks like a shell of itself.
The Bulls come into Friday's game having already allowed 100-plus points in 19 games this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information; under Thibodeau, the most 100-point games Chicago has allowed in a season is 22. What has to be even more maddening for Thibodeau is that after Chicago's loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, the Bulls have now allowed at least 100 points in 12 games at home, already four more than the previous regular-season high under Thibodeau in 2012-13.
So what has caused such a big shift this season in regards to the identity of this team? Power forward Taj Gibson, who has been with Thibodeau throughout his tenure, has an interesting theory.
“I guess you look at our offense, how we got so much firepower,” Gibson said. “And everybody’s elevated their game, too. We had a lot of guys that were just defenders, and then defenders turned [into] kind of scorers a little bit and feeling comfortable scoring the ball now. At times we kind of loosen up on defense, and that little bit of loosening up in the game … can really open up a can of worms for the other teams that really [hit] their stride and score points on us. And that’s been the little letdowns in the games, I think.”
“It’s going to happen sometimes when you’re feeling good about yourself,” he continued. “Everybody’s telling you, ‘You’re good, you’re good, you’re good, you’re good,” throwing things basically in your lap, [and] you kind of lose track of things.”
"As of late, we've just been getting beat," Gibson continued. "We've been getting humbled to tell you the truth. We lost to Utah; we lost to Orlando; teams are coming in really just trying to beat us. Of course, everybody's trying to beat us, but everybody's really trying to take it to the edge -- take us to the edge, basically battle us -- because they know we're one of those teams with high expectations. It's up to us to just push through this hard bump in the road. All the good teams go through it. Right now it's just our turn."
But to Gibson's point about the dynamic offense changing the identity of the Bulls, the numbers show he has a point. The Bulls have already allowed 120-plus points at home three times, more than in any year under Thibodeau. They've given up 60-plus points in a half nine times already this season, the most since the 2010-11 season. Of those nine times, six of those times came at the United Center, which is as many as the last three seasons combined, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Despite all the numbers, neither Thibodeau, nor his players seem outwardly concerned about the recent defensive trends.
"It's collective," Thibodeau said. "It's our entire team. We haven't played well defensively or offensively in the last two weeks. We're still, I believe, ninth in offensive efficiency, and we're 10th or 11th in defensive efficiency, and that's having a rough stretch right here. So we know we're capable of better, and we're going to have to do better."
But Gibson believes there's a more important issue at hand. He and his teammates feel the heightened expectations around this team, and he understands that other teams want to make a name for themselves against a title contender.
"Teams are looking at us as a test to see how far they can go," Gibson said. "If I was another team, I would come in looking at the Chicago Bulls trying to go after them as hard as I can, learn from it. Us, we're just thinking that we're going to beat teams sometimes."
In order to fix the Bulls' defense, and regain the edge that they have lost at times, Gibson knows he and his teammates must start games quicker and get back to their defensive roots. Like the rest of the players in that locker room, he believes everything will click again sooner or later.
"You look at how we play, how we start games, and how we play sometimes, we just think we're going to beat teams just because we got Chicago across our chest," Gibson said.
"And that's basically just like a target, because these guys are coming in, giving us their all the first five minutes into the game, and then we're wondering like, 'What happened?' But we'll get it together."
CHICAGO -- The Washington Wizards have the Chicago Bulls' number.
After a 105-99 loss on Wednesday that included a 61-point barrage in the second half by the Wizards, the Bulls are now 3-8 against Washington over their past 11 meetings, including the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Info. They've lost five straight to the Wizards at the United Center.
Obviously, with Derrick Rose back and Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic in the fold, the Bulls are a totally different team than they were last postseason, when they got beat in five games in the first round by a hungry Wizards squad. But the Wizards have proven in recent years that they are not a good matchup for Tom Thibodeau's group, including twice in the past week.
"It's an NBA team," said Rose, who scored 17 points in the first quarter in leading the Bulls to a 50-44 halftime lead. "Anybody can come in here and beat you any night. It's just that they got good players on their team. They run their offense to a T, they execute great and the ball goes where it's supposed to go."
Over their past 14 games against the Wizards, the Bulls managed to score 100 points just once. That was Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series in which Mike Dunleavy went off for 35 points. During that 14-game stretch, the Wizards have averaged 93.9 points a game and have held the Bulls to 90.4 points a game.
Why do the Bulls struggle so much against this group?
The Wizards' length is a big reason for their success against the Bulls. Nene and Marcin Gortat have given the Bulls fits, especially in the second half on Wednesday after Joakim Noah left the game because of a right ankle injury.
Gortat is averaging 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds a game over his past 11 against the Bulls, including the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Nene is averaging 14.3 points per game against Chicago in his Wizards tenure. On Wednesday, he had eight assists, tied for the second most he's ever had in a game.
On top of Nene and Gortat's performances against the Bulls, Thibodeau's group continues to struggle in slowing down John Wall and Bradley Beal. The backcourt duo combined for 38 points, seven rebounds and nine assists on Wednesday. That doesn't make the Bulls that much different from the rest of the league, but what has to worry Thibodeau even more about the Wizards this season is the addition of Paul Pierce. Thibodeau, who coached Pierce in Boston as an assistant on Doc Rivers' staff, knows how much the veteran can help a young club. Pierce proved that again Wednesday, going off for 22 points and helping underscore the notion that Washington is an even better team than it was a season ago.
"I think when Paul and Andre [Miller] decide to retire, they will take it out on a lot of people playing at the YMCA," Wizards coach Randy Wittman joked after the game.
Despite their recent play, and the recent struggles against the Wizards, the Bulls remain undeterred.
"It is basketball," Rose said. "You can't play this sport and be perfect. [We're] just going through a little adversity right now, but it seems like guys are trying their hardest and it's just not going our way right now."
That is true and that should be remembered, especially during the 82-game meat grinder of an NBA season. After all, Rose led the Bulls to an impressive win in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 23. But there's no denying that the Wizards have confidence every time they come to Chicago. They aren't scared of the Bulls, and that is going to be a problem for Chicago if these two teams square off against each other again in the playoffs.
He hasn’t been a liability this season, but he clearly hasn't been at his best, either, and while his repaired left knee seems to be the obvious culprit, Noah refuses to make any excuses.
“It's good; I've just got to keep working, keep getting after it,” Noah said after participating in a full practice Tuesday. “I'm feeling better and better so I've got to keep working.”
The reality, though, is that Noah doesn’t look as agile as he did last season when he was named the league’s defensive player of the year. In turn, the Bulls' defense has struggled, especially over the past week when the team lost three of four games, including defeats at home to the Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic.
Asked if he has been going through physical ups and downs this season with the knee, Noah simply answered, “No.” So has he been making a steady progression physically? “Yes,” he said.
The takeaway is that Noah doesn’t want to talk about it. He would rather deal with it on the court. He was supposed to undergo a simple arthroscopic procedure in May, but it was later revealed to be a more extensive repair than planned.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, not known for mercy when it comes to minutes, has at least been a little bit easier on Noah this season. The center has averaged 30.0 minutes this season, compared to 35.3 last season and 36.8 in 2012-13.
“It’s a work in progress,” Thibodeau said. “We knew it would be bumpy at the start because of the surgery. And then Jo’s game is unique. Really, a lot of it is timing, his passing at the elbow, his ability to put it on the floor, drive by people. The more he’s out there the better it’s going to be.”
As far as timing goes, Thibodeau believes Noah’s knack for rebounding is returning quickly, giving the coach hope that all parts of Noah’s game will be at their best soon enough.
In turn, the Bulls might have the defense they’re looking for when Noah is feeling better. And while talking about the team’s recent defensive struggles, Noah sounded like he could have been talking about his own issues, as well.
“This is our story and this is the journey,” he said. “In a season, there's always going to be ups and downs. When there's adversity, people show their true colors, always. That's just the way it is. We're going through something right now and we've got to stick together and make it work.
“The injuries, the new guys -- we can make excuses, but this is who we are. It's not going to change. So it's on us to fix it or it's not going to work.”
“The good thing about our team is they’ve been through a lot of things, so today they came in, had a good approach, we watched the film, I thought we had a very good practice,” Thibodeau said. “That’s usually the start of getting it corrected.”
The tone for the solid practice Tuesday was set immediately after the Bulls were drop-kicked 121-114 to the sub-.500 Orlando Magic. The Bulls gave up 58 points in the paint, scoring only 40 inside themselves.
"It's gotta be all of us," Thibodeau said immediately after the defeat. "We gotta decide what we want to be. There are no shortcuts in this. It's a tough league. If you want to do something special, there's a serious price to pay. And there's no getting around the work. It's really that simple."
The Bulls were torched to the tune of 63 first-half points and lost at home to a team with a losing record for the second time in five days.
After a practice that wasn’t especially long by Thibodeau standards, there seemed to be a better sense of what needs to happen.
“We've got to get better; we're not there yet, but it's fine,” Joakim Noah said. “We've got time. We've just got to keep working, get better as a team, figure out what works and what doesn't.”
There didn’t seem to be one particular place to point a finger. Transition defense hasn’t been at its best, Derrick Rose continues to be attacked on the pick-and-roll, and the Bulls are still working on a unique chemistry project that has some players (Rose and Noah) returning from physical ailments, while others (Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks) are still adapting to the system.
“Teams that play against us, they’re always gonna try to get to us before we can get set,” Thibodeau said, speaking specifically about transition defense. “When you look at your defense, you usually start with defensive transition, then you talk about your shell, then your halfcourt defense, then you break it down further to your low-post defense, your catch-and-shoot defense, your pick-and-roll defense, your isolation defense.
“All those things are team-oriented, so obviously you have to take care of the ball, the paint, react out, cover the line, finish your defense, and when you’re away from the ball, you gotta make sure that you’re thinking help and understand what your responsibilities are. You have to have the ability to do more than one thing. Often times the initial part was there and the secondary part wasn’t. For us we have to make sure it’s all tied together.”
Thibodeau preaches his defensive principles daily, so the message has been delivered often. If there is one obvious issue to blame for the team’s recent defensive woes, it has to be desire.
“There’s two things you always look at first: the intensity and then the execution, was it done properly?” he said. “Obviously, you can’t work on everything, so you try to prioritize the things that you feel need the most work.
“There are times that we’ve played great defense and great offense. Right now, for whatever reason, we’re low-energy, and we gotta get that corrected.”
The regular season is nearly 40 games old and nearing the midway point, so perhaps the Bulls are simply in a midseason lull, sitting somewhere between the energy that comes with the start of the season and the second wind that guides teams toward the playoffs. Their next test comes Wednesday, when they play host to the Washington Wizards.
The Bulls did start the season 13-2, after all. So what is the difference between then and now?
“I'm not sure, I just know our defense isn't very good right now,” Noah said. “We've just got to keep working at it. We saw the film, the energy wasn't very good the last couple of games. We're playing against some tough teams so we've just got to come with the right mindset and come out with some W's.”
“There’s some resemblances, but again a championship team is a championship team,” said Gasol, a two-time champion with the Lakers. “It proves it and it wins it. We had a run in 2008, we lost the Finals, and that was a tough hit. But it fueled us to win the next two.”
Gasol doesn’t have as much history with the Bulls, having joined the team via free agency this season. He likes what he sees, though, just over two months into the campaign as the 25-10 Bulls have a sizable lead in the Central Division and are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Atlanta Hawks (26-8).
“We’ll see what happens here,” Gasol said. “We still have a lot to come, a lot to do to go from here to the next one. It will be interesting to see and find out what we’re capable of doing and being.”
The reasons for optimism are clear. Derrick Rose hasn’t exactly been injury-free this season, but he has managed to stay on the court while his level of play improves, despite a recent shooting slump. Then there is the growth of Jimmy Butler into a likely All-Star.
But Gasol has also done his part, as the 34-year-old is in the midst of a career revival. He has averaged 18.3 points per game to go along with 11.3 rebounds, which are his best numbers in those categories in at least four seasons.
“I’m definitely energized, definitely rejuvenated, all in, and I have been since I got here, since I made my decision to come here,” Gasol said. “I’ve been energized, and mentally and physically engaged, so that’s a huge deal for me.”
Clearly, he is buying into coach Tom Thibodeau’s system, even if that means he isn’t on the court late in games. At the start of the season, Gasol said he wanted to be on the court with the game on the line, and if he wasn’t, it was a sign that there might be some questions about his abilities.
“It’s not about keeping guys happy,” Thibodeau said. “It’s about doing what’s best for the team and gives you the best chance of winning. We’ve asked everyone to sacrifice for what’s best for the team. And they’ve done a very good job with that. Some nights, it’s one guy. Another night, it’s somebody else. Somebody has to sacrifice.”
Gasol seems OK with that, which is the ultimate sign of respect for his coach. But he would still like to have his number called in crunch time.
“Nah, I still want to be on the floor when the game is on the line, period, no matter what,” Gasol said. “The times that I’m not, as long as we’re winning, I can be OK with it, but I still want to be there when we’re playing for the money. It’s just me, it’s just who I am, just who I’ve been, and who I want to continue to be.”
He has used that mentality to help the Lakers to two championships. Perhaps if everybody is accepting of their roles on this team, a deep playoff run can happen.
“We’re very dangerous as far as a team,” Rose said. “The sky’s the limit for us, for sure, if you think about it. Defensively, we really didn’t have that type of game where we shut teams down the entire game. We can always improve defensively. Offensively, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
Thibodeau has his players believing in themselves, and sometimes that can be the hardest part.
“It says we have a good group of guys who are committed to winning,” Thibodeau said. “If you want to win, that’s what you do. You always have to put the team first. That’s expected. If you’re a professional, that’s what you should do.”
For now, Gasol’s biggest contribution is his production. Come April and May, all of his championship experience could serve the team well.
“We have a really good team, no question about it, but we still have a lot of work to do, a lot of path to walk, and a lot of work ahead of us,” Gasol said. “The potential is great, but we really haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’re a team that strives for greatness, but we really have to prove a lot to ourselves and to the rest of the league.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau said both players were “sore” and offered few details. Asked if Rose was dealing with a sore hip, Thibodeau said, “It’s a little better today.” Noah is coming off knee surgery in the offseason and was not included in the team's injury report.
Rose scored 19 points and dished out nine assists against the Houston Rockets on Monday as he matched up against fellow Chicago product Patrick Beverley.
“I feel good; I feel fine,” Rose said. “I can't complain about anything. The hip is fine. I didn't feel it yesterday, so I guess that's a good sign.”
While neither practiced, both Rose and Noah did take part in extra shooting after practice was complete. In other injury news, Mike Dunleavy (right ankle) did not practice, while rookie Doug McDermott (right knee) had full participation, with his return to the court still undetermined.
Rose did admit to digging a little deeper Monday in his matchup with Beverley.
“That’s just Chicago basketball, man,” Rose said. “We’ve been really going after each other since high school and that was my first time playing against him in the pros ... and I guess y’all can tell by the way he was playing. That’s a Chicago thing.
“But if anything, you have to love it. If the kids who are from Chicago were watching yesterday, you have to see that both guys were competing and really trying to win that game. It’s deep, it’s very deep.”
Rose was not concerned about his availability Wednesday.
“Yeah, I should be able to play,” said Rose, who confirmed that the hip issue started after he bumped into Boston’s Avery Bradley during Saturday’s victory over the Celtics. “I’m not worried about it.”
Not just the painted area of the NBA, either.
“Aaron’s a hell of a bowler,” childhood friend Nate Robinson said. “He’s probably the best bowler in the NBA.”
So this made me wonder: How in the heck did Brooks lose the Chicago Bulls' recent charity bowling tournament to Australian rookie Cameron Bairstow?
“We bowled one frame,” Brooks said with a dismissive sigh. “It’s a one-frame tournament. He got a lucky strike. I’m pretty good. I’ll let my stats speak for themselves.”
Brooks and Robinson, who faced each other in the Bulls’ 106-101 win over Denver on Thursday, grew up together in Seattle’s basketball hotbed.
While Robinson prefers pingpong to bowling, both played basketball, football and ran track in an environment full of future professional athletes.
What was Nate -- still a fan favorite in Chicago for his one season here -- like as an 8-year-old?
“Same,” Brooks said. “Same, just bigger than everyone. Smaller, but physically bigger than everybody. Phenomenal athlete. You just had this sense that whatever he wanted to go pro in, he was going to do it. I know a lot of people say that loosely about kids. I never really say that, but for him, whatever he picked that he was going to do professionally, it was going to work out.”
Robinson loves talking about the “206,” where fellow NBA players like Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Tony Wroten, Martell Webster, Rodney Stuckey and Zach LaVine, among others, all hail from.
What’s a Seattle basketball player like?
“We have fun,” Robinson said. “We just hoop, however it comes. We have fun and hoop, that’s it. That’s all we know how to do.”
“It’s weird, because you don’t really think about it like that, but I guess we’re all scorers,” Brooks said. “We have an edge to us. Being on the West Coast, it seems like it’s always East Coast bias for basketball. You kind of take that with you when you go on the court.”
Brooks is averaging 10.8 points and 3.1 assists, playing 20 minutes a game at a position where the star, Derrick Rose, has missed time and has minutes restrictions, and the backup, Kirk Hinrich, just missed the last five games. All three can play both guard positions, giving coach Tom Thibodeau multiple backcourt options.
Robinson thrilled, and scared, Bulls crowds two seasons ago when Rose was recovering from ACL surgery. Last year it was D.J. Augustin, who was signed off a quick stay on waivers after Rose hurt his other knee.
Both players turned their Chicago stops into multi-year deals elsewhere. It helps that Thibodeau's offense lets point guards attack.
“I know Aaron,” Robinson said. “For him he’s got a lot to prove after playing in Houston and not getting a contract that I thought he deserves and he thinks he deserves. For him, this is just a statement year for him to show teams, and other GMs around the league, not just the Bulls, that he can play.”
Brooks signed a one-year deal for $1.145 million this past summer. Back in the 2009-10 season, Brooks averaged 19.6 points per game for the Rockets, who drafted him in the first round in 2007. But he’s bounced around the league, with Houston trading him twice and waiving him once from 2011 through 2014.
"He kind of got lost in the shuffle," Thibodeau said.
Robinson, who is one year older than Brooks, wants to see him stick in Chicago, where Brooks and Rose made a formidable offensive duo.
“I hope it’s not a one-stop-shop type of deal,” Robinson said. “Especially with what he’s doing. Past years, they’ve shown they don’t want to keep guys who come in like myself and Aaron for too long. They had D.J. Augustin, who came in last year and did a hell of a job last year and look what happened.”
After the Bulls’ Christmas win against the Lakers, Thibodeau gave Brooks the Thibs seal of approval.
“He’s got a lot of toughness; he’s real smart,” Thibodeau said then. “His speed is something that’s hard to deal with. He creates scoring opportunities, he’s great in the pick-and-roll. He knows how to find people, and he has all the tricks. For a guy that’s small, he can finish around the basket. He knows how to use the board, he knows how to extend, get the ball away from the body against shot-blockers. He’s not afraid to get in there. He’s tough. He’s a hard guy defensively; he’s going to battle. He’s a hard guy to post up. He’s just tough, tough. The guy’s a winner.”
Injury update: Mike Dunleavy didn't practice with a "jammed" ankle, Thibodeau said. Dunleavy hurt the ankle on defense in the third quarter Thursday and didn't return. He is questionable for Saturday's game against Boston. He hasn't missed a game since joining the Bulls last season. Pau Gasol had the day off from practice. He's listed as probable with a left chest contusion.
CHICAGO -- For four years under Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls have exuded trust on the defensive end. They know where each other is going to be on the floor and they play hard together. They know that if one player makes a mistake, another player will be there to pick them up and cover for them.
Twenty games into this season, though, that trust was lacking, according to two of their defensive stalwarts.
"I think our trust has to be better," Joakim Noah said after Saturday's loss to the Golden State Warriors. "We're not where we need to be and that's on every area of the defensive end. We all have to do a better job and that goes for everybody. I take the blame for some of it, but we all have to be on the same page, and right now we're not where we need to be."
But the Bulls coach doesn't see it as an issue of trust. When asked Wednesday about what it would take to rebuild trust, Thibodeau said: "That's garbage. That's garbage. Trust, it's work. It's work. That's how you build trust. You got to know what you're doing, you got to be tied together. You got to work at it. It's a cop out."
For a coach who has built his entire career on outworking his opponents, the idea that Thibodeau's players don't trust each other on defense flies in the face of what he has taught them over the past five years.
"Where you get trust is from the work," Thibodeau said. "The magic is in the work. It's working together, it's timing. It's being tied together. One guy being off is going to hurt you. So you need everyone working together. It doesn't end. You're not going to have it figured out in three days. You're trying to do something great. Nothing great was ever achieved without great work and great effort. It's really that simple."
Instead of demurring and and agreeing with Thibodeau's assessment, Gibson fired back in his own way before Wednesday's game. Thibodeau is entitled to his opinion, but that doesn't mean Gibson agrees with it.
"That was just me and Jo's opinion," Gibson said. "We're on the court."
Gibson followed up on the point he and Noah made on Saturday.
"It's just new guys," Gibson said. "That's all it is. Most of the guys are coming from teams, they're not really defensive-minded teams first. So of course it's going to happen, but that's just my opinion. That's what I see on the court. I've been here for a while. I know what I'm talking about. Joakim knows what he's talking about, he was the defensive player of the year, of course he's going to know what he's talking about. We're on the court, though."
On the surface, this appears to be more of a media-driven story. A player says one thing, a coach disagrees, and then a player is asked for his opinion of the coach's new thoughts.
The difference here is the players and coach involved.
Gibson and Noah are two of the most respected Bulls. They are proud players who wouldn't rock the boat for any reason.
In that regard, Thibodeau is similar. But the fact that Gibson didn't back down in his belief is telling and shows a shift in how he and Noah are handling Thibodeau's demanding style. Gibson didn't call out his coach, but he stood up for his opinion and made it clear that he didn't agree with Thibodeau.
The Bulls responded in the hours following Gibson's pregame comments with a dominant performance against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night. It was arguably their best defensive performance of the season, holding the Nets to just 33 percent shooting in a 105-80 romp.
After the game, Gibson acknowledged that the trust that had been missing in previous games was there against the Nets.
"It's something that you see," Gibson said. "It's something that you really got to drill in your head. You got to really be in practice, you really have to watch film. You have to really drill [it] in your head. And trust that the guy next to you is going to have your back. And tonight, in the second half, I felt like it was kind of like that tonight.
"The bigs were calling off the defensive coverages, the guards were responding. Guys were just switching, talking, and that was real big. That's what teams that go deep in the playoffs really capitalize on. Just talking and believing in each other and no letups on defense."
The natural follow-up, when it comes to Thibodeau and his players, then is the same one that has been whispered about for several years both in and out of the organization: Will the players start to tune out Thibodeau?
The answer, at least up to this point, remains no. The Bulls are still winning and there is a genuine belief from within that they can win a championship this season if Derrick Rose & Co. stay healthy. But the grumbling, in regards to Thibodeau's abrasive style, might be growing a little louder than usual behind the scenes.
The first sign of that came before the season when the front office made it clear to Thibodeau that Noah and Rose would be on a minutes restriction to start the season. While it appears to be a prudent decision given both players' recent history with knee injuries, Thibodeau understandably did not like it. Like most coaches, he wants to be in control and he doesn't want to be told what to do by anyone. The difference with Thibodeau is in his attention to detail. He wants to know about everything basketball-related going on within the organization and wants to have the power to make decisions on the floor.
That doesn't make him that much different than his peers. But the difference is in the rigidness. Gibson noted that Thibodeau put the Bulls through two tough practices after Saturday's loss, a fact reaffirmed by veteran Pau Gasol, who half-jokingly said: "I'd rather play back-to-backs."
“The key with Thibodeau is the consistency. His message is the same and it has been since he was hired in the summer of 2010. He demands order, effort and accountability on the floor.
Most of the guys are coming from teams, they're not really defensive-minded teams first. So of course it's going to happen, but that's just my opinion. That's what I see on the court. I've been here for a while. I know what I'm talking about. Joakim knows what he's talking about, he was the defensive player of the year, of course he's going to know what he's talking about. We're on the court, though.” -- Taj Gibson
"He's Thibs," Gibson said. "He's Thibs 100 percent every day of the week. He's not going to change. But eventually guys are going to take in and listen to what he says. He may yell at you 100 times but you're going to eventually do what he says."
Thibodeau has become one of the best coaches in basketball because of his ability to stick to those principles no matter the situation. It just seems like more than at any other point during his tenure, his players are getting tired with how that message is being delivered.
That happens to every coach over time. That's why there's always so much turnover in professional sports. But Gibson's comments illustrate one of the rare times during Thibodeau's tenure when his words were challenged, even slightly.
Does that mean that Gibson, Noah and the rest of the Bulls are suddenly going to stop playing as hard for Thibodeau at some point this season?
No. The players still respect Thibodeau a great deal for the way he prepares for each game, a fact that Gibson referenced after Wednesday's win in saying Thibodeau was "a guru when it comes to the game plan."
"He's on your case for a reason," Gibson said. "He only wants to get you better. He's on you every day. He yells at everybody from top to bottom, Derrick, everybody, even the guys that's on the bench. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He just wants you to get better. You see how everyone's been rewarded over the years. Guys have to follow suit and nothing's going to change."
They also don’t get much more diverse. It's the long-range shooting of the Warriors’ Steph Curry and Klay Thompson against the inside-out play of Derrick Rose and the tough defense/blossoming offense of Jimmy Butler.
“They’re definitely talented; they can really shoot and score the ball,” Butler said Friday. “They get up quick in transition. But I think our job is just to make them work for every look that they get. Make everything difficult and challenge every shot. That’s the best way to guard those guys.”
The Bulls are coming off a win at Charlotte on Wednesday, while the Warriors are arguably the hottest team in the NBA with an 11-game winning streak that matches a franchise best. The Warriors lead the NBA in field goal percentage and assists.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau prides himself on defense and there might not be a more unique defensive challenge than the Warriors.
“If you overcommit to [the backcourt], they have other guys who can hurt you,” Thibodeau said. “What’s probably overlooked is how unselfish they all are. They were a high-assist team last year and they’re a higher-assist team this year. It tells you they play for each other.
“[Andrew] Bogut is under the radar. He’s very clever. He can handle the ball, pass, score around the basket. And he has a great defensive presence about him, He’s one of those guys who makes the team function extremely well. He’s a great screener. You can tell they have a team of guys who have fully embraced their roles. And their record reflects that.”
Thibodeau witnessed the challenge ahead with Curry and Thompson this past summer, as an assistant coach of USA Basketball.
As far as gleaning some kind of advantage heading into Saturday’s matchup? The Bulls coach scoffed.
“You have a pretty good idea of what they are,” Thibodeau said. “You also base it on what your team has done against them. I didn't need to be there to know how hard to be guarded. That part, I had a pretty good understanding of that.”
With Rose still working his way back from a myriad of injuries and Butler seemingly getting better by the game, is this the chance for the Bulls backcourt to show what it is made of?
“I don’t think our backcourt really cares (about that), whether it’s me or Derrick or Kirk [Hinrich] that’s in there; we just play,” Butler said. “We don’t worry about getting into the media and saying who is better than who. I think we’re all really good players, and whenever we go up against each other, I think each other’s games will speak.”
While Butler is the only one of the four backcourt starters not to have played in Spain this summer, he brings with him his own bona fides, most notably the Eastern Conference player of the month award for Novemeber. But he's aware of the perception of his place in the matchup.
“I guess at the end of the day [Thompson] is supposed to be better than I am anyways, like everybody else in this league, so I just continue to play the game hard, play the game the right way,” Butler said. “I think it will take care of itself.”