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Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau commands respect

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

His last name is pronounced “Thib-uh-doe.”

His nickname is pronounced “Tibs.’’

Can anyone explain this discrepancy? Can anyone explain how a slave to detail would allow such a thing to happen?

“I don’t know,’’ Tom Thibodeau said, laughing. “I have no idea.’’

That tragic situation aside, the Bulls’ head coach should have a pronounced skip in his step these days. His team has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. It just finished a sweep of the Heat, apparently reducing some of the Miami players to tears. And it has every reason to believe it has a chance to win the NBA championship this season.

Sunday’s victory over the Heat revealed two winning coaches who couldn’t be in more different situations

Thibodeau has his players’ attention. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra clearly doesn’t have his players’ attention.

One team plays well together; the other is a grouping of three superstars with compatibility issues.

Or maybe the better way to put it is that the Bulls are a team, the Heat would vaguely like to be.

Thibodeau’s players listen to him. It’s a blessing, not a given, for an NBA coach. In crunch time Sunday, LeBron James did what he did in every close game as a Cavalier: He stood with the ball at the top of the key, and none of his teammates moved. This time, he drove to the basket and missed.

So far, James’ career shows that the stand-back-and-watch-LeBron strategy is not going to win NBA championships. This is where a coach is supposed to step in and, you know, coach. There’s no doubt who’s running that team, and it’s not Spoelstra.

There’s no doubt who’s running the Bulls. Thibodeau had center Joakim Noah switch on James for that last possession. It made all the difference.

“He’s been an assistant coach for a lot of years,’’ guard Kyle Korver said before the Bulls’ 85-77 victory over the Hornets on Monday night. “He’s studied a lot of film, and there’s not a situation that he hasn’t seen at some point. He has it worked out in his mind, how he wants to guard every single situation.’’

Thibodeau has a presence about him. Maybe it’s that croak of a voice he has, created by his habit of screaming while his team is on defense. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that the Bulls are winning. It’s a twist on the age-old debate of, What comes first, victories or team chemistry? In this case, the question is whether the victories came before the respect for Thibodeau arrived, or the other way around.

“I don’t think there’s one player in here that would say that Thibs isn’t the best X’s and O’s coach they’ve ever played for,’’ Korver said.

It’s natural for NBA players to be skeptical of a coach with no head-coaching experience. When the Bulls came calling in June, Thibodeau had just finished his 18th season as an assistant in the league. He knew strategy, but what did he know about flesh-and-blood human beings?

A lot, as it turned out.

“He’s been consistent,’’ Korver said. “He treats everyone equally. He gets on Derrick [Rose] just as much as he gets on anybody else, if not more. When he holds the best player to a high standard and that player takes it, the rest of the team does, too.’’

Anything else?

“If you’re not doing it right, he just doesn’t play you,’’ Korver said.

There is that. He benched Carlos Boozer for the fourth quarter of a game in January after he thought the Bulls’ starters had lacked energy. Playing time is the one nuclear warhead a coach has.

“I don’t ever want them to relax,’’ Thibodeau said. “I want them to keep moving forward. I think our leaders have done a good job of setting the tone for our team.’’

Thibodeau is a leading candidate for coach of the year, but he’s about as happy talking about that as he is about the fist pump he did after the Bulls held on to win Sunday. A show of emotion looks as natural on Thibodeau as a Nehru jacket would.

He’d prefer to talk about the leadership that Rose, Boozer, Noah and Luol Deng have provided.

“They made the commitment from the start of the year,’’ he said. “They came in early. They committed to playing as a team. They’re unselfish. They play hard. They practice hard.

“We’re not a perfect team, and we have a lot of room to improve. But I think our intentions are very good.’’

A basketball lifer like Thibodeau can work with that. You wonder if he could have worked with everything that comes along with James, had he decided to sign with the Bulls in the offseason. You wonder if any coach can actually coach the Heat.

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