SLAM 148: The Bulls have become title contenders quicker than anyone imagined.
Coming into the ’10-11 season, nobody—not their most ardent fans, not the so-called experts and not, if you injected them with truth serum, even the players themselves—truly believed the Chicago Bulls were a championship-caliber team.
“Not on paper, but at training camp, we definitely saw that we had something,” admits Derrick Rose, who simply isn’t capable of guile—on or off the court; why do you think he used to struggle drawing fouls? “We knew that we played hard together, we liked playing together and we’ve got basketball players [a phrase Derrick often uses to describe cats who go hard and don’t complain, the way he was raised to do on Chicago’s South Side] on our team.”
Sure, Rose was certain to take another step in his emergence as a superstar. Yeah, the addition of Carlos Boozer would give them the true low-post scorer the franchise hadn’t had since…Artis Gilmore. Charismatic center Joakim Noah was also likely to improve, the underrated Luol Deng would benefit from having more weapons around him and the rest of the front office’s free-agent haul (featuring backup point guard CJ Watson, blue-collar starting shooting guard Keith Bogans and Boozer’s fellow ex-Jazzmen Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer) would round out the team’s depth. This was supposed to be a squad that, although capable of throwing a scare into the Bostons and Miamis of the East, was at least a year—or two, or trade (or Melo)—away from seriously contending.
But here we are.
“You can never judge how fast chemistry’s going to come together, but our chemistry—as you know—started way back in August, September. We were all in the Berto Center (the team’s suburban practice facility) early, working out with Coach Thibs, getting our shit right, and because of that, our chemistry came so fast. You see how fast our chemistry came,” explains Booz. “You just work hard and you see what happens.”
“We still have a whole Playoff run that we’re looking forward to and…” he pauses for effect as a grin creeps over his bearded mug. “We’ll have a chance.”
There wasn’t one moment, but a slew of them—the team’s first winning record on the always-treacherous November “circus trip” (without Boozer) since the Jordan Era; a “grimy” (another of Rose’s go-to descriptors) home win over the Lakers; a decisive victory over the Spurs at the United Center the night before the All-Star break, in which Rose scored a career-high 42 points; the trio of nail-biting triumphs over the vaunted Heat to sweep the season series between the teams; not to mention fighting through the adversity of months-long absences to both Boozer and Noah (38-year-old veteran Kurt Thomas and young bigs Taj Gibson and Omer Asik all filled in capably)—that have slowly convinced everybody that the Bulls are legit.
A lot has to do with first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, a longtime NBA assistant, noted defensive guru and hoops lifer, who seemingly lives in the Berto, breaking down game film until the wee hours. His mantras—“If we play defense, rebound, play inside-out, unselfish and low-turnover, we should be in position to win the game” is a staple—are quickly becoming legend among the Bulls press corps, but “the big thing is” (another Thibs-ism) not only are they true, but the players also espouse them and practice them on the court, resulting in the team’s surge to the top of Eastern Conference standings.
“There’s a great character on this team, guys who come from winning programs, who played in big games before, with Kyle, Ronnie, Carlos, Kurt Thomas,” says Noah, quietly. “Everybody who’s been here has won at a certain level. It’s really exciting. And then our leader, Thibs, is somebody who has winning experience—a lot of experience—who’s been in a lot of locker rooms and who’s hungry as hell. When you have a coach that has that much hunger, as a player, you respect that. The only thing that matters to everybody on this team is winning, and I think that’s rare. A lot of people preach it, but not a lot of people are about that. We’re in a situation right now where I think we can do something really special. We’ve got a lot of talent on this team and we have enough to do something special, but to do that, we can’t get caught up in anything—can’t get caught up in the hype—and just enjoy playing the game.”
Concurs Rose: “We’re just keeping it simple…the city’s going crazy right now, but we’re just trying to stay focused and keep playing with an edge.
“If anything, we’re just trying to get better as a team, so that in the Playoffs, Thibs doesn’t really have to yell or curse us out as much. Thibs is demanding, where if you don’t do it right, he’s going to keep making you do it until you get it right. It’s his way or it’s no way. He’ll let you breathe on offense a little bit, but defensively, he’s not letting you do what you want to do.”
Rose’s selfless nature is in concert with Thibodeau’s—a hard-driving coach who never sits down on the sidelines and privately goes off on his players. Thibs’ consistency and unwillingness to castigate anybody to the media has earned him the respect of his team. After 20-plus years behind the scenes, the overly prepared strategist isn’t taking his opportunity for granted.