Tom Thibodeau was deep into an answer about surprising Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley when he resorted to an old favorite.
“His confidence comes from his preparation,” Thibodeau, the current Knicks and former Bulls coach, said.
Thibodeau 3.0 arrives to prowl his former stomping grounds for two Bulls-Knicks contests at the United Center beginning Monday. At each successive stop since guiding the Bulls to their most successful, post-dynasty era before being fired in 2015, Thibodeau insists he has grown and evolved.
Thibodeau even cracked a smile when told, in a nod to the league’s health and safety protocols that keep visiting teams largely ensconced in hotels, that the Chicago restaurants hope he has mastered the Uber Eats app.
“I certainly miss those restaurants,” Thibodeau said on a Zoom call over the weekend.
But some things about Thibodeau, 63, never will change.
His team is still uber-prepared for each game. He still drops what came to be known in Chicago as “Thibs-isms,” nods to work and preparation such as the one offered about Quickley. And he still wrings every ounce of potential out of any roster, even one that was largely pegged to be languishing near the Eastern Conference basement and arrives hovering around .500.
“I never really look at that sort of stuff,” Thibodeau said about outside expectations.
No, what Thibodeau looks at is film. Then, a practice plan. Then... Well, some more film, before he might catch another game on TV and close his night out with one last film session.
That’s, of course, an exaggeration. But so is the Knicks’ victory total through 21 games -- 9-12 after Sunday's loss to the Clippers -- if you think about it.
“I liked the potential of the team based on the guys who were here. And then you never know until you actually coach people how they actually are. But I’m very pleased with the approach of the guys. They’re young guys who can get a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “But I also think we have really good veterans who help what we’re doing. And they continue to get better as well.
“And then of course you add a guy like Taj (Gibson), who has been such an important part of a number of winning teams. I think he adds so much to the group as well. We have a long way to go. There are certainly a lot of areas we need to improve. But I love the attitude and approach of these guys. The way they’re practicing, I think we’ll continue to improve.”
That’s another hallmark of Thibodeau-coached teams, riding his oft-stated mantra that teams should be playing their best basketball as they near the playoffs. While such a goal might have been considered laughable at season’s start, who’s to say in an Eastern Conference that has been underwhelming thus far, and in a disjointed campaign due to the coronavirus, that the Knicks can’t qualify?
“Every day is a process to get better,” Julius Randle said.
There you go. Thibodeau even has his players speaking in Thibs-isms.
Randle has been a revelation, averaging career-highs across the board at 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 6 assists. His assists average is miles ahead of his previous high of 3.1.
So is his playing time of 36.5 minutes. That’s less the "Minutes Police" talking and more stating a fact that Randle is 4.1 minutes over his previous career-high average.
That’s another staple of Thibodeau, making players better through increased playing time, mental and physical demands and constant attention to detail. Look at the jumps Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and even role players like D.J. Augustin, made when Thibodeau coached the Bulls.
"He has done a good job of putting me in good positions on the court. I think the biggest thing is just holding me accountable on a game-to-game basis,” Randle said. “Just continued to push me to do more and also holding me accountable with leadership and bringing energy with the team.”
Veteran Reggie Bullock is on his fifth team in his eighth season. He called playing for Thibodeau “a blessing” and credited the coach’s approach with instilling toughness throughout the organization.
“He’s one of those coaches who definitely is going to hold you accountable. He’s definitely improved me on the defensive end with just how detailed he is,” Bullock said. “Plus, just the defensive mindset our whole team has by him holding everyone accountable. He’s trying to instill greatness in us every day.”
Monday night, a mask will hide Thibodeau’s near perpetual scowl on the sideline. The non-existent fans who typically sit courtside will be spared the barrage of profanity.
But Thibodeau’s relentless chase for perfection will be in place from the visiting bench. And a near-empty United Center will hear a familiar baritone barking orders.
Some things never change.