SAN ANTONIO -- All Tom Thibodeau had to do to see what he wanted to become during his professional career was look to his right on Wednesday night.
Thibodeau tried to downplay just how much a win over the perennial but injury-depleted powerhouse was on Wednesday night. He knows winning is tough any night in the NBA. But a win on the road against the Spurs is different for Thibodeau and his team.
That's because Popovich isn't just one of Thibodeau's coaching role models. The system that the future Hall of Famer Popovich has put into place in San Antonio, and the principles that he stands on, are things that Thibodeau tries to emulate in Chicago.
Like Popovich has instilled in the Spurs, Thibodeau wants his team to believe it can win each and every night -- no matter who is on the floor -- something they showcased again on Wednesday.
"I give him a lot of credit, because he came in with a plan," Thibodeau said of Popovich. "And a lot of times people come in and they talk about the things [they want to do], he's done it. They established their core values. If you look at his entire time here, there's certain characteristics in all the players that he brings in, all the coaches that he brings in, they have a great system, their management. It all fits together. He's a great leader.
"To me, the mark of greatness is to have the ability to do it year after year, and he's done that. Their organization, they're the gold standard -- from everything they do. Every aspect of how they run an organization."
That's what makes this particular win even more satisfying for Thibodeau & Co. The Bulls beat the Spurs at their own game. They were physical with them, they played solid defense and they got contributions from almost everybody.
Joakim Noah almost sat out the game due to the flu, but instead nearly racked up a triple-double. Kirk Hinrich, who hadn't played in more than a week because of a hamstring injury, made several big shots down the stretch. Jimmy Butler, who has been in the middle of a bad shooting slump, had 19 points and played solid defense all night. D.J. Augustin, who didn't have a job a month and a half ago, had 15 points. All seven of the Bulls who played significant minutes scored in double figures.
As has been the case all season, Thibodeau and his players have rallied around the notion that very few people around the league believe the Bulls can do anything of significance this season without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. Thibodeau has gotten his players to buy into his message, much the same way Popovich has done for years in San Antonio.
"We want to win, man," Noah said. "Winning's important here. Who knows what's going to happen? It doesn't matter who we're playing in the first round. All these playoff experiences are things that we can't take for granted.
"Our careers are short, and every time we play in the playoffs it's special. That's what it's all about. It's like the reward for all the hard work you put into the season. I think that we're a young team and all those experiences in the playoffs, they make your young guys better. They make all of us better.
"So I think there's a lot of positives that can come in, and who knows what can happen in the playoffs?"
While advancing in the playoffs is still an admirable goal for a squad that has hovered at or below .500 most of the season, the fact that the Bulls continue to have success hasn't come as much of a surprise to Popovich. When he speaks about what Thibodeau and the Bulls have accomplished, it sounds a lot like the plan he and the Spurs have been following for the past decade and a half.
Popovich believes there are three key reasons why the Bulls have continued to have success without Rose and Deng in the fold.
"And it would be the same with other teams, I think, if they have these three characteristics,” Popovich said before the game. “One is, Thibs does a great job. He's going to make the same demands, keep the same standard, be relentless in trying to get better and better at every aspect of the game. Secondly, he's got a group that -- they've got character, and they care. And they're going to keep giving it to him. And thirdly, as a group, they play outstanding defense. And that keeps you in games on nights when maybe you can't put it in the hole and they're really good night after night consistently in a defensive sense."
The difference is that many teams don't have Thibodeau and Popovich running the show. Many teams don't have the talented groups of players that care about winning like the Bulls and Spurs do. Many teams don't have front offices that can pick up players that will fit well into those respective systems, like the Bulls and Spurs do.
Thibodeau has seen how great the Spurs have been over the years, and he knows a huge reason for that is because Popovich knows exactly what he wants to do each and every night. He knows there's a certain plan he wants his teams to follow.
That's why Thibodeau has to be so pleased with his team's spirit and the way they executed Wednesday. That's why it must have felt so good for Thibodeau to watch as Popovich walked toward him at center court to shake his hand on a job well done as the final buzzer sounded.
"It's hard to win any game and it's very difficult to win on the road," Thibodeau said. "So when you go on the road, any time you can get a win it's terrific. But I like [that] right now we're developing some pretty good habits, and we have to keep building. I see a lot of possibilities for our team, I really do.
"They have a good fighting spirit. We're playing hard, we're playing together, we're playing for each other; that goes a long way in this league. If you can do it every night, that's a big plus."