Minutes to win it

CHICAGO -- It must be basketball season because Tom Thibodeau is cranky.

It's the last Friday evening in October and the Chicago Bulls have just finished an undefeated preseason with a 94-89 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Hold the champagne and the confetti, please.

Thibodeau is practically steaming at the postgame news conference as he lectures reporters, and by proxy his team, on how a team should play basketball, which is to say, they should play with maximum intensity and intelligence for 48 minutes or until their arms fall off. Whichever happens first.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Thibodeau said. "The preseason tells you where your team stands. We did some things OK and other things not so well. But, regardless, the moment of truth is coming. We have to put hard work into it and be ready."

The moment of truth.

So very dramatic until you consider it's October and the playoffs start in late April.

But for Thibodeau, even a preseason game is an existential crisis.

In his mind, playoffs have already begun.

"As they say, the battle is won before it's fought," Thibodeau said.

Sun Thibs' Art of War, everyone.

The Bulls have two rivals this season. Health and the Miami Heat, perhaps in that order. With Derrick Rose back from a well-publicized ACL tear, and the core of the Bulls intact, it's championship or bust.

The Bulls open the season in Miami on Tuesday, where they will avoid looking at the Heat's second consecutive banner and purposefully miss the Heat collect their championship rings. It's not just another game. Rose said it'll be "over-hyped" because he's coming back and the Heat are getting their jewelry. And this is a real rivalry, rife with animosity and basketball class warfare.

If you thought the Bulls' preseason felt like the playoffs, this will feel like the Eastern Conference finals.

"You want what they have and the only way to get it is just by playing them tough and going through them," Bulls forward Luol Deng said.

Thibodeau knows how to get to Miami in June. For a guy who lives perpetually in the present, he can tap into the past when necessary. He speaks often to his players about his experience with Boston and New York teams that made, and in one case won, the NBA Finals.

"That's on his mind all day," forward Taj Gibson said. "Every day we talk, there's always inspirational quotes, previous players' quotes, champions like [Muhammad] Ali. Everybody that's ever won something or has done something big in their life, he reads their quotes, and we just take it every day. We're real focused, we really think about the game. We just think about winning. Every day is focused on guys just winning."

That's why the last preseason game, which meant nothing to you, meant everything to Thibodeau. Because each game is a step toward the Finals.

While you say none of it matters, because it's preseason, and the Bulls are wasting precious minutes for a team that has struggled with a variety of injuries in Thibodeau's wildly successful three-year stint as head coach, you couldn't be more wrong.

Thibodeau didn't care about the score. He cared about the habits. He'd take a habits championship before a Central Division title.

See, Thibodeau isn't trying to win every game for ego's sake. He's trying to build a championship team, one minute at a time. He knows only one way to coach, expecting excellence and expectorating invectives.

For some this is a problem. For any NBA team, health is a major concern.

While a city equivocates between loving Thibs and fearing him, Deng admitted that if the Bulls want to be healthy in April when the playoffs begin, the onus is on the players to monitor their bodies. This is a veteran team now.

"At the end of the day," Deng said. "We've got to be healthy when it comes to April. I think we understand that even more now."

Because the Bulls prepare so well, and because they are so athletic and because they execute so well on defense and because they have Derrick Freakin' Rose, Chicago is still the top challenger to Miami in the Eastern Conference. If the Bulls stay healthy, of course.

Center and defensive lodestone Joakim Noah re-aggravating a groin injury in the preseason is just the latest example of the travails the Bulls face this season. Combined with Kirk Hinrich's concussion/shoulder injury, it's a bad harbinger of injuries to come.

Playing time and injuries are popular, intertwined topics in Chicago and it makes Thibodeau's blood boil. He doesn't even like it when a waiter asks him how long they should cook his steak.

"You have to do all the things necessary to condition yourself to go through a long season," Thibodeau said Friday.

And the Bulls are doing all they can to do just that, said Deng. While he got a late start to summer conditioning because of a scary botched spinal tap in the playoffs, he likes the preparation he sees at the Berto Center.

"This is the first time in 10 years I've seen that many people really working on their game when I go to the gym," he said.

Of course, considering he leads the team in minutes every year, Deng half-joked he'd be up for trying things San Antonio's style, where coach Gregg Popovich gives his veterans multiple days off during the season.

But he's smart enough to realize the method behind Thibodeau's minutes mania.

"The whole season matters," Deng said. "You want to be healthy at the end of the year, but throughout the whole season, you got to think about having the best record. When you look back at how the Finals was won, not taking anything away from Miami, but I think it could've been a lot different if San Antonio had the better record. It changes a lot. In our mind, from the start of the year it really matters. That's how Coach coaches, that's what he wants. He wants to win every game. He wants the best record. That's how we play."

It works. In the two seasons Thibodeau has coached Rose, the Bulls have had the best record in the NBA.

At 25, Rose, more muscular and just as fast as ever, realizes it's the Bulls' time.

"I think the whole team is hungry for it," he said Friday. "Every day we push ourselves to a championship-caliber level. Even when guys are hurt or injured or don't feel like they have it, we find a way to push each other through practice, shootaround or even through games like tonight. It was a preseason game, but little stuff like this helps in the end."

Asked about his mental state going into the season, a popular topic to be sure, Rose cracked a smile. He's tired of talking up his own comeback.

"I'm pumped but I'm a guy who don't show that much emotion," he said. "I don't know if you want me to yell or anything. But for me, it's going to be a great year. I think we started the season off right."

The Bulls haven't lost yet. I've got them down for 60 real wins starting Tuesday.

After Friday's game, Gibson was asked what would make Thibodeau happy.

"A championship," Gibson said with a sigh. "A championship. One word: Championship."

He's not the only one. For as good as Thibodeau is at coaching, it's on the players to come up with a championship effort. As their coach would say, they think they have more than enough to win it all.

"We've been through a lot," Deng said. "I always believe that every team that wins it, you don't just create a team and they go out and win it. You have to go through some things. I think we're more mature, we're older. I think guys want to win more than anything."