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Bulls Wed Mar 09 2011
The Bulls are in fine shape with 20 regular-season games remaining, sitting second only to Boston in the Eastern playoff race, but there's still plenty of work to be done, even after winning six of their past seven games. That's why they are so fortunate to have the calming presence of coach Tom Thibodeau.
After Sunday's one-point win in Miami, the biggest story nationally wasn't Chicago's three-game season sweep of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade & Co., but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's curious decision to tell the media that some of his players took the loss so hard they were crying in the locker room.
I'm not going to comment on the crying itself; there are plenty of others willing to do that. But Deadspin's Barry Petchesky wrote a short piece yesterday related to the sob story, and it's gone a long way towards increasing my appreciation for Thibodeau.
A relative no-name in the NBA coaching world (at least compared to coaching titans like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich), Spoelstra entered this season like a kid handed the keys to a sports car he has no business driving. But that was supposed to be fine, as Petchesky explains:
Spoelstra's role has very little to do with basketball. Gather big stars with big egos, and the coach has to be more a ringmaster than an Xs and Os guy. You set the rotations and you stay out of LeBron and Wade's way. Your mission on earth is to keep controversy to a minimum.
Quite frankly, Spoelstra has done the opposite, and he's done it a few times this season. Just because your team receives more media coverage than any other doesn't mean you need to answer all their questions in such a detailed fashion. I've no doubt LeBron, Wade and Bosh are frustrated and disappointed, perhaps they dreamed of a 72-win season as much as ESPN did when they devoted seemingly half their website staff to daily coverage of the new superteam. But by creating a bigger storm out of what was already another notable loss, Spoelstra brought his team's fragile confidence front and center for the world to mock.
Conversely, Thibodeau has coached the Bulls all season with the steadiest hand possible. Granted, he has never had to deal with more than two losses in a row, but maybe that's has something to do with him, too. Like delineators on a highway, Thibodeau has been a constant guide for the young Bulls. When they start straying from the game plan (defense, first and foremost), he's there to remind them with a film session and practice the day after a tough loss. When they win six or seven in a row, he doesn't heap on the praise either. He commends them for following the script.
The end result was what you saw Sunday. With the game on the line, the Heat had the ball for the last shot and failed to come through. Nerves? Perhaps. But maybe it was the steady presence of Thibodeau, reminding his charges that when they work hard for each other on defense, they will stop anybody. It's a mantra he's preached all year, and it has resulted in a team that believes in themselves and trusts their coach.
With the fourth quarter of the season about to begin, could you think of any better coach than one who keeps your team focused solely on the basketball? Because down on South Beach, the Heat sure can't. After yet another loss Tuesday night, they're too busy passing around the Kleenex.