Bulls

Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

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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.

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

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NBC Sports Chicago

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

There are 23 games left, Bulls fans! Not that I’m counting, or anything. As we prepare to enter the final month of the NBA regular season, the Bulls are a Leap Day loss to the Knicks away – it could happen, we’ve seen it happen – from being 20 games under .500. Given the goals set forth by John Paxson and Jim Boylen on media day, I think it’s fair to say that the underachievement this season has been jarring.

Some fans have checked out and will tune back in for the draft lottery in May. To those of you I say: I get it. But there’s still basketball to be watched!

The Bulls’ remaining schedule is a gauntlet of playoff-bound teams including a daunting west coast trip in April. This likely means the playoffs are a pipe dream, regardless of what the math says in the “games back” column of the Eastern Conference standings. But this tough schedule in March and April also provides Bulls fans with some fun games to watch, with individual matchups that might just provide glimpses of hope for next season.

Here are 5 games I’m excited to watch in the remaining Bulls schedule. It’s the Pecking Order.

1. March 2 – Bulls vs Mavericks

I know, I know. It’s not fair that the Mavericks went straight from the Dirk Era to the young and wildly promising Luka Era with no gap in between while the Bulls languish in the third year of a rebuild that hasn’t taken off. It’s only human to wonder “what if” the Bulls had gotten luckier in the lottery or managed to make the trade Dallas did to land Luka Dončić two years ago. John Sabine doesn’t help matters with his nonstop Luka talk.

But I can’t help it. Luka, and this entire Mavericks team, is so much fun to watch. Their offensive efficiency this season isn’t getting nearly enough talk or respect. The Bulls kept it close when these teams met in January despite a modest 20-point night from Zach LaVine. Lauri Markkanen had one of his better games of the season with 26 and 9 rebounds.

Dončić didn’t even need his sidekick Kristaps Porziņģis, as he picked apart the Bulls to the tune of a 38-point triple double. And this was before defensive anchors Wendell Carter Jr. and Kris Dunn went down with injuries. Hopefully Wendell will be back on the court for this one and we’ll see how he handles Kristaps, who looked pretty darn good in February.

2. March 14 – Bulls @ Heat

The Bulls are 0-2 against Jimmy Butler’s new team so far this season. One of those was a backbreaker that saw 17 ties, 15 lead changes and went to overtime. The Bulls led for 37:38 of the game’s duration, while the Heat only led for 6:10. Zach LaVine drew a foul on Jimmy Butler and sank free throws to send the game to an extra frame, where Tyler Herro drilled three of his game-high five 3-pointers to seal the win for Miami.

The Heat have been reeling of late, including losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minnesota. But they’re still dynamite at home, where their record is 23-4. Could the Bulls manage to steal one in a trap game for the Heat? Zach didn’t play well in either matchup so far, scoring 15 and 18 points. How great would it be to see a LaVine-Butler duel like the one we saw three years ago when Zach was fresh off his ACL rehab and Jimmy was still with Minnesota? And if the Bulls come out on top? Sure would be fun to watch.

3. March 21 – Bulls @ Rockets

The Bulls were beat by Houston back in November in their first game after Otto Porter Jr. went down. James Harden was one assist shy of a 42-point triple-double and Russell Westbrook chipped in 26. The Bulls, meanwhile, had all five starters and seven total players score in double figures, but nobody scored more than 13. Yikes.

Since shipping off Clint Capela and going all-in on their small ball strategy, the Rockets have surged to just two games back of the second seed in the West. I can’t wait to see what Jim Boylen does with his game plan, as we’ve recently seen him use some give-guard lineups in similar fashion to the Rockets. Might he go back to this even if certain members of the Bulls frontcourt have returned from injury?

It would be a bonus to see a back-and-forth showdown of recently surging rookie Coby White and the always-going-100-mph Westbrook. Give us at least 48 minutes of this! And hopefully, a more respectable outcome.

4. March 23 – Bulls vs Nuggets

We actually get a twofer here, as the Bulls play Denver again on April 3rd as part of their five-game west coast trip. There’s one big reason I can’t wait to watch both matchups with the Nuggets: Wendell vs The Joker, Parts II and III.

In his NBA coming out party on Halloween night 2018, Wendell admirably battled Nikola Jokić in a devastating overtime loss. The Joker did his usual thing, putting up 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. But Wendell also gave him some challenges, forcing Jokić into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. The Bulls' seventh overall pick finished the night with a stuffed stat sheet of 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. The Nuggets big man even paid his respects to the rook after the game.

We never got to see Part II of that matchup last season, as Wendell was out with an injury the second time these teams played. We’ve heard that Wendell is expected back in the lineup as soon as this Saturday against the Knicks after recovering from his high ankle sprain. I cannot WAIT to watch Wendell go at The Joker twice in the final few weeks of the season. Please, Jim Boylen. Let Wendell go at him.

5. April 8 – Bulls @ Lakers

I want revenge. That loss to the Lakers way back on November 5 still bothers me. It’s bothered me all season. Instead of closing out a solid win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the juggernaut Lakers, Bulls fans watched the team let a fourth quarter lead slip away with our primary starters watching from the bench. Boylen said he had "15 guys to develop” when he explained his rotation after the loss.

One potential hiccup here: a revenge win will mean a LOT less if LeBron and AD are managing loads in the final games of the season as they prepare for their title push. I hope they’re playing, and I hope we pay them back.

Thanks for reading. Let’s close out these final 23 together, Bulls Nation! See red, be good.

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

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NBC Sports Chicago

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

It doesn’t take an anniversary for Chip Schaefer to think about Hank Gathers.

“It’s never really far from my mind,” Schaefer said in a recent interview.

Schaefer is the Bulls’ director of sports performance, working his second stint with the franchise after serving as the athletic trainer for the dynasty. But one of the Deerfield, Ill., native’s first jobs was athletic trainer and strength coach at Loyola Marymount University from 1987-90.

In fact, Schaefer was the first non-player to Gathers’ side on that fateful March 4, 1990 day when the star forward collapsed on the court during a West Coast Athletic Conference tournament game and died moments later due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Wednesday marks 30 years since Gathers’ death. On Saturday, Loyola Marymount will unveil a statue honoring him. The family invited Schaefer to the ceremony, no small gesture in Schaefer’s world.

But with the Bulls in New York and Schaefer having already squeezed a trip into Los Angeles this week for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Schaefer merely sent his appreciation and respects to the family.

“It doesn’t take much for me to think of him,” Schaefer said. “Every time we’re in Philadelphia, his hometown, I think of him. Every time I flip around the TV and see a Loyola Marymount game, I think of him. I run into people, Jay Hillock, one of (the Bulls’) scouts, was an assistant coach on the staff, and I think of Hank. He was special.”

Schaefer isn’t merely referring to Gathers’ athletic ability, which had NBA talent written all over it.

“He was really an extraordinary personality,” Schaefer said. “He had just an unbelievable sense of humor and a wonderful gift for mimicry.

“I remember one year we had the typical college, end-of-season awards night. It was supposed to be MC’d by one of the local sports anchors. He had to cancel at the last minute. Hank wound up MC’ing it. And he killed it. He could’ve done Vegas with the bit. He had a whole (Muhammad) Ali- (Howard) Cosell bit. It was just unbelievable. He had something funny for every player. And he was riffing, completely spontaneous. I remember nights like that where his rich personality and wit and intelligence was on full display.”

Much like with Bryant, who Schaefer worked with for 12 seasons with the Lakers, he is trying to remember the happy times. When Loyola Marymount hired Schaefer from the esteemed Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, he was only a few years older than Gathers.

“Hank was actually a patient that I met at the clinic. I think he had patellar tendinitis. And we really hit it off,” Schaefer recalled. “That Spring, the athletic trainer before me (at Loyola Marymount) was let go. Hank came in all bubbly and was all excited about me applying for the job.

“So we had the next three years together where we continued to build the special relationships you often build in this field. There were a lot of really personal moments. Hank and Bo (Kimble) grew and we kind of shocked the world in the NCAA tournament that 1987-88 season. We built a national spotlight.”

Indeed, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89. And then Kimble led an emotional run to the Elite Eight in 1990, shooting a free throw left-handed to honor Gathers’ memory.

Schaefer attended Bryant’s memorial service by taking a red-eye flight so as not to miss any Bulls’ commitments. Saturday’s game against the Knicks doesn’t allow him to do the same for Gathers, although he grew emotional when asked what the invitation meant to him.

After all, since Schaefer was one of five people who worked on Gathers outside the gym after his collapse, he was named as one of 10 people and three medical practices in a lawsuit. Schaefer knew he did nothing wrong and followed proper emergency protocol by the book, and Gather’s mother, Lucille, ultimately settled the $32.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit for $545,000.

“I’m the one there along with the doctors on the floor trying to help revive and resuscitate him, so you never know how a family is going to react to anybody that is associated with that,” Schaefer said. “But I’ve heard from Hank’s brother, Derrick, occasionally with warmth and affection and magnanimity and grace. That’s really something. After three decades, that Lucille would even remember my name much less think, ‘It would mean a lot to have him here,’ I’m touched beyond words about that.”