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CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau moved briskly through the postgame locker room, but he couldn't escape being noticed.
"Hey Thibs!" Joakim Noah shouted from across the room. "Congrats! You're going to the [bleeping] All-Star Game."
When met with Noah's approval, Thibodeau smiled and did a little half-wave and walked into the training room.
|It might be a cliché, but Tom Thibodeau's one-game-at-a-time approach has helped him win 76 percent of the games he's coached with the Bulls.|
Thibodeau's Magic Kingdom is the Berto Center, and Noah is the only Goofy he wants to deal with.
He won the right to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars by virtue of the Bulls' 24-7 record after they beat the Kings on Tuesday in an All-Star-like track meet 121-115.
The joke is that the All-Star Game, and in the spotlight, is the last place Thibodeau wants to be.
"It's an honor, and I know coach is thrilled he's going," said Luol Deng, a first-time All-Star. "But if he had a choice, I doubt he would be going."
That's because he has to get ready for the first game back after the break, a home game against the New Orleans Hornets. I asked Thibodeau if he was ready to start breaking down the film of the Western Conference All-Stars. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have a nice two-man game going.
"I'm just worried about Boston," Thibodeau said, referring to Thursday's opponent. "When we get there, I'll worry about that. The important thing is to go step by step. The challenge right now is a long homestand, the break coming up and it's easy to look ahead and get distracted. You can't do that. You gotta stay focused at the task at hand."
The Bulls have won 76 percent of the games he's coached, but Thibodeau hasn't quite proven himself to be infallible to criticism in a city that is once again mad with basketball fever. To some, he's too hard-charging, too monomaniacal, too unsparing of his charges. His life is basketball, one game at a time, and he doesn't much care about criticism. He doesn't lash out at repetitive questions, because he knows the answers.
Thibodeau isn't some rockhead coach -- in fact, he's slavish to analytics -- but he does things one way, his way, and so far it's worked. Remember, the Bulls were a .500 team during Derrick Rose's first two seasons.
Challenging authority figures is the bedrock of our democracy. It's important that the media, and by our proxy, the fans, try to keep Thibodeau honest, especially on injuries, which he guards like he's the embodiment of the NHL injury report.
Heck, even his boss Jerry Reinsdorf said he wonders why Rose is playing at the end of a blowout. But that's a fan speaking. And it shows Jerry is just like us.
Thibodeau hasn't quite earned carte blanche in Chicago yet. One's reputation, in his field, is really only cemented by a title, and even then, not completely.
But I'm an ardent admirer of Thibodeau's work, only because it's easy to see how teams, even good teams, get distracted in the NBA. So many games, so many interviews, so many cities.
But while the spectators are just ticking off games and praying to disparate deities that Rose is healed come playoff time, the Bulls are trying to tune out the noise.
"You guys probably will skip [the Kings game] and talk about the Boston matchup," Deng said Tuesday night. "It's really important for us not to listen or fall into that. A game like tonight, it's very easy to lose a game like that if we're just thinking Boston. But after we lost to Boston [on Sunday], our whole mindset was Sacramento. Tonight, he already started with Boston."
This is a strange season for the Bulls, because there really are no marquee matchups. Getting the top seed in the East, as proven last year, doesn't mean much. Neither does regular-season wins over an opponent, again proven last year. It all comes down to how healthy the Bulls are when they inevitably meet the Miami Heat in the conference finals.
I'm not sure there's a way to strike a perfect harmony between keeping the team healthy and keeping it sharp, nor am I positive that Thibodeau, a basketball robot, has found it yet. But he's certainly trying. While some like to focus on minutes played, a lot of the rest takes place off the court, especially in a truncated season during which practice is a special occasion.
"It's always a struggle balancing between rest and work," Thibodeau said.
While they don't always like him, players rave about Thibodeau's ability to deliver information and control his players' focus.
"He really gets us prepared for games," Deng said, with the emphasis on the actual game. "Winning so much and hearing this and hearing that, and having the MVP on our team, and now people are saying we have an easy schedule and you're at home, it's really easy to relax. But he always finds a way to prepare us and get us ready."
Appearing on the "Waddle & Silvy" show on ESPN 1000 on Wednesday morning, Thibodeau laughed about benching Deng and Rose, who is out with a vague but seemingly minor back injury, in the All-Star Game next weekend. The coach said he agrees with his critics on that point, at least in theory. But he's not ruling Rose out yet.
"We'll see where [the back situation] is when we get there," Thibodeau said. "We just want to do what's best. We don't know how it will be. That's down the road."
Fresh off playing 42 minutes, and stringing together an All-Star line of 23 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds on Tuesday night, Deng's feet celebrated in a cold tub of ice and water. He had just removed a heavy ice wrap from his questionable left wrist, and he was at peace.
Deng is playing the fourth most minutes per game at 38.1. Last year he averaged 39.1, also fourth in the league, and he didn't miss a game for the second time in seven seasons. But you won't hear him complaining about too many minutes or too much focus on nonessential opponents.
"I really love the way coach approaches games," Deng said. "I love the way he coaches. It kind of helps me with my character. I like things to be organized. Playing hard is my style, and I really love it."
Some wonder if Thibodeau is going to burn out the Bulls come playoff time. After all, the Bulls sputtered at the end last season, losing four straight to a Heat team that was probably just better.
"Trust me, [Thibodeau] is a good thing to have, for all of us and our careers," said Deng, a man who spent two years under Vinny Del Negro. "You've got to have someone pushing you every day. It doesn't get any better than that."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.