Van Gundy expanded Thibodeau's role to include defense, and in 2000--01 the Knicks set an NBA shot-clock-era record by holding 33 consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 points. But whenever top jobs opened, Thibodeau was ignored. He interviewed three times in 20 years. "It's like politics," says Roby, who became the director of Northeastern's Sport in Society center and is now the Northeastern athletic director. "Teams want to make a splash and win the press conference with a former player or head coach. The grinder, the worker, may not be as charismatic or conducive to the one-liner."
Thibodeau is not part of the Armani coaching tree. Doucette visited him in apartments around the country decorated with nothing but cardboard boxes and game tapes. "Tommy, there are only so many ways to defend a pick-and-roll," Doucette would say, and Thibodeau would go searching for one more. He returned to Boston in 2007, to be defensive coordinator for Doc Rivers, just as Killilea was for Heinsohn. In his first training camp he grabbed a couple of Celtics by the jersey to show them where they needed to be in a drill. The fear of many general managers, that Thibodeau would alienate NBA players with his direct style, proved to be unfounded. Boston became the best defensive team in the league, and last summer Thibodeau was finally rewarded with offers from the Hornets and the Nets.
"You've waited so long," Van Gundy advised him. "Just take one." Thibodeau scouted each organization as if it were an opposing offense. He worried about the unsettled ownership situation in New Orleans (the team was later sold to the league) and the future of president Rod Thorn in New Jersey (he bolted to the 76ers). Thibodeau held out for the Bulls, who offered him the job the day after they interviewed him. A few weeks later, as general manager Gar Forman sat in his office at the team's practice facility, he heard the lights flick on over the court behind him. It became the sound track of the summer.
Thibodeau led his players through a procession of exhausting individual workouts, many twice a day, some late at night. "I'd hide from him, and he'd still find me," Noah says. "I'd tell him, 'Thibs, I can't do it again, I'm tired, it's summertime, it's Friday, let's take it easy, let's chill.' He didn't go for that." Thibodeau flew to Las Vegas for Team USA's training camp, just so he could talk to Rose after practices, and even though Thibodeau did not travel to Turkey for the world championships, he and Rose chatted on the phone after games. Forman suggested that Thibodeau forget about buying a house in Chicago and simply build a third story on top of the facility.
The Bulls were initially wary of their Belichickian leader, who gave them scouting reports as thick as suburban phone books and put them through shootarounds that always started at 10 a.m. and ended at exactly 11:15. Noah needled him about the interminable mornings—"Thibs, we have a game today, let us get off our feet"—to which Thibodeau responded, "Do you like to win?"
The Bulls led the NBA in defensive efficiency, rebounding differential, opponents' field goal percentage, opponents' three-point percentage and, according to hoopdata.com, opponents' field goal percentage from three to nine feet. They demolished inside and out. Miami forward Chris Bosh went 1 for 18 in a game against the Bulls, the worst shooting percentage by a player with that many attempts in 38 years. Jazz point guard Deron Williams grew so frustrated against the Chicago D that he changed a play ordered by coach Jerry Sloan, an audible that precipitated Sloan's resignation and Williams's trade to the Nets. The Pacers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter of a January game against the Bulls, and the next day coach Jim O'Brien was fired. De-fense chants, a staple of every NBA arena, echoed a little louder at the United Center.
"How often did you watch us this year and think, They didn't play hard tonight?" Deng asks. "That's because of Thibs. We see how much he pours into it." The Bulls eye their Coach of the Year on charter flights, face illuminated by his laptop, scribbling notes. Thibodeau studies the Bulls and their upcoming opponents, of course, but also the patterns of individual players around the league. "He figures out what guys do to get themselves going, and then he tries to take that away through adjustments," Scalabrine says. "It's psychological warfare." Scalabrine is not referring simply to the sweet spots on the floor where players go for their shots but also to the different ways they ease themselves into games. Some, like Hawks guard Jamal Crawford, want to immediately free up for open threes. Others, like James, prefer to hand out a few assists before even thinking about scoring. Thibodeau aims to break their rhythm and limit their confidence, which is why he was so irritated about Teague.
Chicago's defense is constantly changing based on all the accumulated intelligence. "When you're dealing with special players, you have special rules," Thibodeau says. In Game 1 against the Heat, the Bulls did not double James early and thus took away openings for the highlight passes he craves. They did, however, corral him with a help defender. For all its quickness and length Chicago can still be susceptible to teams that swing the ball around the perimeter, but the Heat continued to isolate James and Wade. That's why the Bulls are so well-suited to win this series and reach the Finals for the first time since the Jordan era. James and Wade may be two of the best one-on-one basketball players in the world, but they are going one-on-five now, dribbling headlong into the teeth of some very hungry dudes.
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