By Dan Bernstein–

Tom Thibodeau was hired to improve the Bulls’ defense, but it’s possible that he has done much more than that.

In the span of just a few months, he may have them stopping opponents like no other team has in modern franchise history.

Sometimes reputations are merely products of fortuitous timing, and hopes that a coach’s success may transfer from one franchise to another are often dashed.

In the case of Thibs, he’s doing exactly what he did in Boston. The Celtics won a championship because they defended and rebounded, and he has installed the same system here, hoping for the same result in his first year in command of a team.

Some numbers (I am going to keep things simple, fully understanding there are all kinds of new metrics of debatable accuracy that can be applied as well): the Bulls this year are leading the NBA in opponent scoring average at 91.3 PPG. The Scott Skiles team of ’04-’05 allowed 93.4, the ’06-’07 team 93.8.

The 72-win team in ’95-’96? Opponents averaged 92.9. The next year’s champs? 92.3.

The ’97-’98 Bulls are in the conversation, since they held opponents to 89.6 PPG, and kept their field-goal percentage at a stingy .431.

Thibs’s guys are allowing a FG% against of just .429.

I’ll push the case for this year’s team, primarily because changes in NBA rules have made it tougher than ever to guard, and these numbers are not accomplished by depressing overall scoring like, say, Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks that only scored in the high 80s themselves.

In 1999 – after the championship run ended — the following was enacted: “In the backcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders. In the frontcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders except below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may only use his forearm. Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player. Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding, “chucking,” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.”

In other words, Michael Jordan can’t do what he did to Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen can’t do what he did to Magic Johnson, and Bill Cartwright probably can’t do anything to anybody.

Now, defense is not a case of individual players wrestling with a nightly matchup, hand-fighting and bumping up and down the floor. It’s helping, recovering, dropping down and closing back out to shooters quickly but under control. Defense is an entity, reacting though awareness, effort and muscle-memory. Help, recover, cut off a lane and return to your man. Again. Run end-to-end.

This is what Thibodeau does. Hell, it’s what Thibodeau is.

Fans like to see the ball go in the basket, and we all love the determined aerobatics of Derrick Rose, but appreciate what is really underpinning the Bulls’ rise to the league’s elite.

Try to watch them actually play defense, rather than only watching the results. The missed shot was great, but it came because of a well-timed block-to-block baseline slide. The shot-clock violation occurred because the first option was taken away, the second turned aside and the third caught the ball where he couldn’t do what he wanted. Altered shots can be as valuable as blocks. Active hands and feet mean deflections and runouts.

What’s going on right now may not be sexy, but it may be special.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Is This The Bulls Best Defense Ever?

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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