Thibodeau and Bulls prepare for the biggest star


Oct 26

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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Yao Ming opened the much anticipated NBA season Tuesday night.

But everyone has to wait for Wednesday night to see the league’s best player.

Yes, just the Bulls luck as they open the 2010-11 NBA season on national TV against the Oklahoma Thunder and Kevin Durant, generally the consensus pick to be this season’s Most Valuable Player.

Yes, Tom Thibodeau, welcome to your first NBA head coaching job.

“The big thing with Durant is he has a great touch and size,” Thibodeau said Tuesday afternoon as the Bulls wrapped up their final full practice of the preseason. “He can score in some many different ways. He’s dangerous in transition, gets to the line, can catch and shoot and play out of the post. It’s the versatility (he played all five positions during preseason), basically a seven footer who can catch and shoot on you.”

And he’s not exactly alone with many around the NBA predicting the Thunder as the team to give the Lakers the most problems this season and playing in their college town type atmosphere that makes it one of the most difficult arenas in the league for road teams.

“(Russell) Westbrook keeps getting better,” observed Thibodeau of the point guard whom many felt outplayed teammate Rose on the USA team. “He has a quick dribble, can penetrate and get out in the open floor. (Jeff) Green is terrific. There’s nothing he doesn’t do well. He shoots the three and is a terrific low post player. You give him the ball in the post and he scores easy in there. He’s a terrific passer, plays defense. There’s not much he doesn’t do.”

No, Thibodeau isn’t his agent.

“And you can’t overlook those other guys,” said Thibodeau. (Serge) Ibaka is tough inside, (Thabo) Sefolosha you know from being here is a hard nosed defensive guy who can hurt you. (James) Harden is showing great improvement and shooting the ball well, putting it on the floor strong.”

I checked. The Bulls did go to Oklahoma City, anyway, despite that scouting report.

And while they are not supposed to win this game—home opener, playing without Carlos Boozer against a full complement of Thunder players, big underdogs where you can gamble—this remains the kind of game this Bulls team can get.

And it helps they have players, even the youngest, who don’t expect trouble. Derrick Rose was asked about Durant and whether he was a player he’d pay to watch.

“No,” answered Rose.

You have to like that Rose really doesn’t see anyone better.

“He’s good,” Rose conceded. ”He’s around my same age, a friend of mine. I’d like to see him do good. If anything, it makes me go out and play harder so I can outdo him.”

Rose said he does so to delight in their regular video games so when he sees a move he can tell Durant how he did that on him. I know some felt Rose should have done more to recruit James or Wade, as if it would have mattered. But you have to admire his competitiveness, the elemental trait that drove Michael Jordan.

Rose added he was good friends with Westbrook, that they shared agents and worked out together, though, “On the court I’ve got to kill you. As a basketball player, you try to do better. You have to have that mentality, that I’ll kill you every time I step on the court.”

Thibodeau has been preaching and teaching fundamentals of playing hard, unselfishly, rebounding, the elements of a successful team because it’s about team and not always about star talent, though it helps.

“If we’re doing the right things we can beat anybody on a given night,” said Thibodeau. “We feel with the guys we have—and we’d like to have Carlos—we still feel we have more than enough to win right now.”

Yes, even in Oklahoma City.

And though it would be a mild surprise, it’s hardly impossible.

I’ve talked to scouts who have seen the Thunder this preseason, and they’ve seen some worrisome signs for a team supposedly ready to take that next big step, though you find moving up from 50 wins is often a lot more difficult than getting there.

Although the Thunder bring back their nucleus in tact, they did lose an important behind the scenes figure in assistant Ron Adams, now with the Bulls. You say, what, just another assistant. Yes and no.

It depends on the staff, and with an inexperienced head coach in Scott Brooks, the veteran Adams assumed more the role of a defensive coordinator in football.

Where scouts have seen slippage from the Thunder in preseason is in a somewhat sloppy defensive effort as opponents averaged more than 100 per game and shot a staggering 48 percent.

The Thunder’s personnel philosophy has been to bring in long armed athletes to fit around Durant, and what scouts have seen is a plethora of missed defensive assignments with players trying to make up for it with their long reach and athleticism. In short, a lack of defensive discipline.

It can be overcome, though not for long periods, by great individual performances. And the Thunder is capable of that with Durant, who’ll be defended first by Luol Deng.

Where you can gain advantage on a tem playing like that with lesser talent, like the Bulls without Boozer, is employing the basics Thibodeau teaches of solid position defense, rebounding, smart play with a limitation on turnovers, which the Bulls haven’t done well in preseason, and getting out in transition.

Yes, you try that every game, which, effectively, translates into efficient play. The Bulls can beat a team like the Thunder on the road, as they did last season, though they have much less margin for error.

It’s generally being viewed as a milestone by everyone but Thibodeau. But Wednesday is his first official NBA game as a head coach, though he coached in college, in summer leagues and as lead assistant when Jeff Van Gundy or Doc Rivers was ejected.

Thibodeau pretty much dismisses all that stuff, especially given his reputation for being prepared, and he talked Tuesday, for example, about what you do when Durant gets going, the various options for in game adjustments as just part of the overall preparation.

He’ll stand a lot and be heard, though he joked that if he had as many championships as Phil Jackson he’d sit down also.

Thibodeau has an easy way about him, hardly the uptight, cold basketball junkie that some depicted.

“It’s about the team, not me as an individual,” said Thibodeau. “That’s where you want it to be. I’m excited for the team. It’s a great challenge for us. We are a work in progress, but we want to be a good team by the end of the season.”

Asked again about being intense, Thibodeau sort of sighed.

“I don’t understand that sometimes,” he said in a question he always gets like Scott Skiles did because, you know, people said.

Hey, they still keep writing, those alleged experts, that Rose can’t shoot.

“When you look at successful coaches, they have all different personalities,” said Thibodeau. “’You’re too laid back, too intense, this or that.’ The big key is to try to be yourself, to be who you are. What might work for one guy might no work for another guy.

“My job is to be consistent with the guys every day,” said Thibodeau, “to be a teacher and communicator and tell the team the truth every day.”

And if he does that, the Bulls have done well.

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