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Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau defends his distribution of playing time

Luol Deng (9) 41.0 Joakim Noah (13) 40.1 are first second NBA minutes. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Luol Deng (9) at 41.0 and Joakim Noah (13) at 40.1 are first and second in the NBA in minutes. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 16, 2013 6:10AM

Tom Thibodeau has proved to be one of the NBA’s elite coaches during his tenure with the Bulls, but even he hasn’t been able to escape scrutiny concerning players’ minutes.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has defended holding out his stars or reducing their minutes, Thibodeau finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Thibodeau has been playing forward Luol Deng and center Joakim Noah 40-plus minutes. They’re first and second, respectively, in the league in minutes.

Noah played 87 minutes in the last two sets of back-to-back games.

“There’s more scrutiny all around, and it’s not just for a lot of minutes,” Thibodeau said. “It’s never the right amount of minutes. That’s the only thing I do know. So if a guy’s not playing big minutes, it’s not enough minutes. And then if a guy is playing big minutes, it’s too many minutes. You play to win.”

He recalled as an assistant that when his teams faced Phil Jackson’s Bulls or Popovich’s Spurs, both coaches rarely sat their best players.

With Deng and Noah still in their 20s, Thibodeau is doing the same thing. But he says he doesn’t just give his best players heavy minutes without any regard.

Older players — such as Richard Hamilton when he returns from injury — will have their minutes monitored all season.

“If a guy’s young, he can handle that,” Thibodeau said. “If a guy’s older, you watch it more closely. I think that’s a big part of pacing your team.”

Noah didn’t necessarily expect to get heavy minutes, but he credits a tough offseason conditioning program for preparing him for the workload. He’s also putting up career numbers: 13.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 blocks.

“As a player, you want to be out there on the court,” Noah said. “You don’t really ask to get subbed out as a player.”

For Deng and Noah, experience has helped them cope with the general soreness after playing heavy minutes.

Both know how to recover, especially after the grueling back-to-backs the Bulls have played lately. Noah also says it helps that Thibodeau has managed practices, which tends to happen as the season progresses.

“You learn what works for you, and this isn’t my first rodeo, so I kind of know what I need to do to get prepared for a game, and, yeah, it’s not easy,” Noah said. “Maybe when I first came into the league, back-to-backs didn’t faze me, even though I wasn’t playing half the minutes.”

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