Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Sometimes sportswriters pigeonhole a coach or a player, leading to a backlash from friends and family who say he’s different from the public’s perception of him. That hasn’t happened with workaholic Tom Thibodeau.
No one has come forward to say the Bulls coach is a huge fan of 13th century Russian folk dance.
No one has said he’s a music freak or a wine connoisseur or a voracious reader of novels.
He says he likes basketball. Friends say he likes breaking down game film. That’s about it.
He looks as if he hasn’t seen the sun since 1992 and only then to be the first in line for the premiere of “White Men Can’t Jump.’’
What he does care about is coaching and winning basketball games, and if there’s anything else, I missed it.
He accepted the NBA coach of the year award Sunday afternoon and made it clear that everyone else was the reason for the honor. Then he probably went off to watch some more film in preparation for the Bulls’ playoff opener tonight against the Atlanta Hawks.
“You don’t achieve by yourself in this game,’’ he said.
Thibodeau has said over and over this season that he doesn’t care about personal acclaim. He would have been well served by carrying a recording of himself saying, “I don’t care about the NBA coach of the year award.’’
His approach rubs off
But he’s a big reason the Bulls won 62 games in the regular season, the most in the league. He has his players prepared. Always. One of the fallacies about today’s NBA is that it has become more about strategy. There are no secrets on the basketball floor, the way there are on a football field. In Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs, the Bulls didn’t surprise the Indiana Pacers with a new wrinkle from which the Pacers could never recover. It’s not like that. It’s not like the NFL.
What Thibodeau did this season was to get his team to play hard, especially on defense. Always. It was less about what he was telling them and more about their believing it. Winning helps in getting the message across.
Thibs passed on the tendencies he saw on film. His players listened. That’s the difficult part for any coach.
There’s nothing mystical here. He’s no Big Chief Triangle, as Jeff Van Gundy once derisively referred to Zen master Phil Jackson and the cultlike fascination with the triangle offense.
There’s just a rookie head coach standing on the sideline for every minute of every single game, hoarsely yelling out instructions on every single pass of the ball. It’s an approach that could get very old on a losing team, but this isn’t one of those teams, is it?
Thibodeau is smart enough to know that none of what happened this season would have happened without Derrick Rose — not the 62 victories and not the coaching award. But Rose, the putative NBA most valuable player, saw how hard Thibodeau prepared, and it rubbed off on him. It rubbed off on everyone.
Look how far these Bulls have come in one season. When you think about it, this team isn’t so different from the one that went 41-41 last season.
Carlos Boozer, the big free-agent signing of the offseason, hasn’t been the force he was expected to be. He has been a piece of the puzzle.
There have been a lot of contributions, from a healthy and re-energized Luol Deng to an always-energized Joakim Noah.
But Rose and Thibodeau have rightly received most of the attention.
Those guys look familiar
You look at the Hawks, and you can’t help but see the Bulls of the previous few years. Decent, not great. Look at their roster and see Kirk Hinrich, the former Bull who never got to reap the benefits of his hard work in Chicago. He was on the 2003-04 Bulls team that finished 23-59, and he was on the 2006-07 club that won 49 games. But he didn’t taste much playoff success.
Until this season, the highlight since Michael Jordan left was the 2009 playoff series against the Boston Celtics that featured four overtime games, including a three-overtime Bulls victory in Game 6. An exciting series? Lord, yes. It was ridiculously entertaining.
But that series didn’t include an injured Kevin Garnett. People around here tend to forget that detail. When the Bulls made Boston sweat, it was without arguably its best player.
Still, a seven-game series was unexpected from the seventh-seeded Bulls.
What would be unexpected now is if the Bulls didn’t advance past the Hawks and into the maelstrom of the Eastern Conference finals, against either the Miami Heat or Boston. That’s how far the Bulls have come.
They were a bit taken aback by the criticism that accompanied their tough series against the Pacers, a No. 8 seed. But on some level, Thibodeau had to have liked it. Whatever he had told his players about how difficult the playoffs were had been proved.
It was a teaching opportunity. A coaching opportunity. It’s what he does, exclusively.