Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey


Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

When a raucous United Center crowd rises to its feet Saturday evening, it won’t be the first reminder of the Bulls’ playoff journey finally beginning — a seven-month process full of bumps and bruises.

All they have to do is look at the other side at the Milwaukee Bucks to see the ultimate study in contrast, a team playing with house money, merely happy that the United Center security allowed them in the building without a ticket.

The Bucks lost Chicago product Jabari Parker early in the season and haven’t missed a beat, but will welcome him back next season ready to take another leap. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for stretches of the season, most notably his six-week absence and desperate fans were ready to leap from the tallest building, not wanting to hear anything about “next season”.

Of all the questions surrounding this Bulls franchise and their future, Saturday represents a time where they can fully embrace the moment without conscience and soak themselves into the playoff atmosphere while fully understanding the task at hand.

“You have a great understanding of what you’re looking for in certain situations because you’ve been working on it so long,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The hard work, the conditioning, the discipline, that’s how you win close, tough games. Hopefully you’ve done that.”

[MORE: NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?]

Thibodeau’s future, of course, is always debated and rumored but never clearly defined. Bucks coach Jason Kidd isn’t as seasoned as Thibodeau but has the sway and power many coaches dream of, his power play from the Brooklyn Nets last season likely frowned upon publicly but admired privately.

Kidd’s journey began last summer when he decided to exit Brooklyn amid turmoil. The Bulls’ journey began around the same time, when Pau Gasol chose them over the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat and when Derrick Rose began practicing with U.S.A. Basketball, in preparation for what could begin so many months down the line.

Thibodeau admits the ride has been anything but smooth, as the Bulls emerged with a 50-win season but had to hitchhike their way to the top rung of the Eastern Conference, not as dominant as the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks but perhaps more prepared than the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

“You have to embrace whatever comes your way,” Thibodeau said. “This has been a very challenging year with all the injuries and guys in and out. But I’ve been through that before.”

The year was 1999, and Thibodeau references the season enough with media that it wouldn’t be a shock to hear him speed-rap the same mantra with his team about the run the New York Knicks went on in the lockout-shortened season.

Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby were new additions but were hurt in early parts of the season while Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson creaked along on Jeff Van Gundy’s team, where Thibodeau was a top assistant. Once Sprewell and Camby got healthy, and more importantly, consistent, the Knicks won six of eight headed to the playoffs as a 27-23 eighth seeded team.

“We needed every one of them to get the eighth spot,” Thibodeau said. “And then we ended up getting to the Finals. We got healthy as we went along. Whatever you’re faced with, just do the best you can with it. Put everything you have into it.”

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A lot of things worked in their favor that spring and they even rebounded from the loss of an aging Ewing in the conference finals against the Pacers. But they adjusted and continued their improbable run before the San Antonio Spurs beat them in five games for their first title.

The adjustments have come on the fly all season with the loss of Rose, Joakim Noah’s minutes restrictions and injuries to Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson. It’s forced Thibodeau to mix and match all the way to April, and Noah and Rose’s injuries are minor considering the MASH units Thibodeau has had to trot onto the floor some nights.

“If you're a glass half full or empty guy, that's how you look at it,” Dunleavy said. “We've had the opportunity to get some guys in the lineup, develop some guys because other people have been out. Hopefully we'll have a deeper roster and that's one of the advantages we have going into the playoffs.”

Dunleavy was hinting at the urgency but didn’t directly express it until he was cornered about it. A soon-to-be 35-year-old with only three playoff appearances under his belt, these chances don’t come around often.

Noah’s back, Rose is too, and should Gibson’s left shoulder stay attached to his body, it’s the healthiest they’ve been all year, their toughest test to come.

“Yeah, I mean, that's what I'm kind of getting at,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody's dialed in mentally, certainly physically there's been some issues throughout the course of the year. You can't control that stuff. Guys have battled back. But mentally, everyone seems dialed in right now, ready to go. Everybody's got their house in order, so to speak. We're anxious to see what we can do.”

The journey begins Saturday night.

Seven years ago today LeBron James slammed the Bulls' championship window shut


Seven years ago today LeBron James slammed the Bulls' championship window shut

The Bulls couldn't have known it at the time, but when LeBron James blocked a Derrick Rose 3-point attempt in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the closest those Bulls would ever get to the promised land.

It happened on May 26, 2011, seven long, long, long years ago today.

The game was an ugly one and certainly a fourth quarter the Bulls would love to have back. They took a 12-point lead on a Ronnie Brewer 3-pointer with 3:53 remaining. The Heat closed the game on a 19-4 run, with James' emphatic block on Rose the lasting image of the series.

James finished with a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds, and added six assists, three steals and two blocks in 46 minutes.

Rose went just 9-for-29, finishing the series shooting 35 percent from the field after being named league MVP over James.

It's probably unfair to say James and James alone shut the Bulls' championship window. Rose's ACL tear the following postseason realistically was the biggest culprit. But these Bulls had won 62 games, had homecourt advantage, had the MVP, the Coach of the Year and all the momentum. And still they couldn't get it done against James.

That win also sent James to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007. He's been there every year since, though that could change as he faces the Celtics on Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.