On the night of March 22 the Bulls filed cheerfully into the visitors' locker room at Philips Arena in Atlanta, having played what appeared to be another perfect game. They had beaten the Hawks by 33 points one day after they clobbered the Kings by 40, and their record was the best in the East. They waited for their coach, Tom Thibodeau, to cough up some praise. But Thibodeau was incensed over a single line in the box score: Jeff Teague, the Hawks' backup point guard, had finished with 20 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter. Thibodeau predicted then that the Bulls would draw Atlanta in the playoffs and that Teague would haunt them because of the confidence they had allowed to grow. The players stifled eye rolls. Teague had been averaging 4.5 points. He erupted only because Chicago's lead was so overwhelming that its starters sat out the final quarter.
Six weeks later the Bulls did draw the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Atlanta's starting point guard Kirk Hinrich strained his hamstring, and Teague nearly capsized the Bulls with three 21-point outbursts. Chicago advanced in six games but not without a lesson learned. "Thibs can be a pain in the ass," says Bulls center Joakim Noah. "But he's always right."
How Chicago became the premier team in the NBA, after .500 records and first-round losses in each of the past two years, is largely a testament to MVP point guard Derrick Rose. But Rose has been around since 2008. The difference this season is Thibodeau, a fastidious 53-year-old rookie head coach, who has spent most of his adult life devising ways to keep balls out of baskets. Thibodeau's tightfisted defense is a rugged and rigorous ballet, demanding for those who play it and suffocating for those who encounter it. The Heat, still defined by three individuals, was obliterated by the Chicago Mob in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals 103--82 on Sunday. The way the Bulls swarmed LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the catch and smothered them on the drive made it look as if Chicago had eight players on the court. "This series," says Bulls swingman Kyle Korver, "is what this defense is made for."
The day before the game Thibodeau attempted to deconstruct his system. "Our defense really starts on offense," he says, with a shot taken when the Bulls are well spaced, so three players can rush back to curb a fast break while two crash the boards, then follow closely behind. When the defense is set, as many as four players have a foot in the paint to deter a drive. The defender on the ball angles his body to funnel the driver toward the baseline. The defenders in the post wrestle for inside position as if they're in a jujitsu match. A center or power forward, usually Noah, hollers descriptions of the screens being set in front of him.
The Bulls look as if they are always trapping, but often they are "corralling," bringing over a help defender who stays close enough to home that he can scramble back to his man after a pass. Chicago wants the ball handler, when he glances up, to see a human wall. The aim is for every possession to end in a contested two-point jump shot. The Bulls can run an above-average outside shooter off the three-point line because they are certain help is behind them. The entire scheme is based on a series of synchronized rotations, each player leaving his man to pick up one closer to the ball. Guards are quick enough to make the rotations look easy. Centers have to be just as swift. Thibodeau asks big men to show on a screen at one elbow and then be able to recover to the other by the time a pass can reach his man. "I've heard guys tell him it's impossible," says Bulls reserve forward Brian Scalabrine. "Then he asks them if they could do it for an NBA championship."
The Bulls have the appropriate personnel—muscular guards like Rose and Keith Bogans, long-armed wings like Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer, hyperactive bigs like Noah and Omer Asik—with the ideal attitude. The principles of the defense, including relentless ball pressure followed by hard close-outs and reliable rebounding, are in no way unique. "What is unique," says one Eastern Conference assistant, "is their energy and intensity. They're the hardest-working team in the NBA by far. They never relax." They are a manifestation of their coach, who is married only to game tape and has no children or outside interests. (He once claimed to have a collection of rare stamps—an obvious lie.) Thibodeau only collects coverages, which he bellows from the bench in his gravelly baritone while crouched in his own defensive stance. "I look at him when he's screaming at the top of his lungs," Noah says, "and I think, This is a hungry dude."
Thibodeau's professional identity is an irony. "Tommy was the worst defensive player I ever coached," says Don Doucette, who coached hundreds of players at six colleges, including Thibodeau at Salem (Mass.) State. "He never bought into the importance of defense. He just wanted to outscore everybody." Thibodeau disputes this depiction—"You have a bad source," he says with a smile—though a different source who refereed his intramural games claims, "If he went to the basket and didn't get a foul call, he'd just hang around and argue until the ball came back across half-court, and then he'd be in position to score."
One of Thibodeau's teammates on the Vikings was Bill Killilea, son of former Celtics assistant coach John Killilea, who coordinated Boston's defense under Tommy Heinsohn in the 1970s. Thibodeau watched NCAA tournament games one night in '80 with the Killileas at a hotel, and John was so impressed by his curiosity that he gave him a copy of "the Bible"—a 200-plus page book outlining his theories on defense, including a radical concept at the time, that ball handlers should be funneled toward the baseline even though more help is available in the middle.
Salem State made Thibodeau its coach when he was 26, and despite a Division III budget and a dearth of video technology, he covered the locker room chalkboard with pro-style scouting reports. "We knew everybody's favorite moves, the plays they ran, the adjustments they were likely to make," says Nate Bryant, a former Viking who played for Thibodeau. "Defense was a science for him. There were never surprises."
Thibodeau left for Harvard after one season, to be an assistant under childhood friend Peter Roby, and he gained access to New England's hoop intelligentsia: Gary Williams at Boston College, Jim Calhoun at Northeastern and Rick Pitino at Providence. By 31 he was in the NBA, an assistant for the expansion Timberwolves under Bill Musselman, who was famous for running 100 different plays, putting his team through 90-minute shootarounds and employing a help defense that tied all five players together like puppets on a string. Thibodeau was on the rise and was so versatile that in 1996 Jeff Van Gundy, then the Knicks' coach, hired him for his offensive insights. "One day I asked him about individual defense, and he started breaking down the stance on the ball, where your hand position should be, how far you should retreat after a jab step," says Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst. "He gave me a doctoral paper on it. He made me feel bad about my own level of knowledge."