By Dave Wischnowsky–
CHICAGO (CBS) College basketball is a coaches’ league.
The NBA is a players’ one.
But, in pro hoops – no matter how talented your roster might be – coaching does still matter. And on Sunday night, during the Chicago Bulls’ victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, we saw proof positive of that.
Along with a positively delightful 103-82 blowout.
Yes, in this, the biggest basketball playoff series that the Windy City has seen since MJ, the Heat might have the biggest stars. But it’s the Bulls – who can also hold their own in the talent department, mind you – that have the superior coach.
And as this hardwood drama plays out over the next couple of weeks, that edge is going to make a difference. Perhaps even more than anyone has realized, as we’ve all been so busy sizing up James vs. Deng, Rose vs. Wade, Bosh vs. Boozer and so on and so on, that we might not have paid enough attention to the series’ other serious showdown.
Thibodeau vs. Spoelstra.
Last night, after the Bulls routed the Heat behind a dazzling second-half display of defense (34 second-half points) and discipline (one second-half turnover), Miami Herald blogger Greg Cote wrote, “Can the Heat still win the series? Absolutely. But it looks like a series where Erik Spoelstra is going to have to earn his coaching stripes.
“He needs to figure out a way around this suffocating defense and rebound machine.”
Starting with Game 2 on Wednesday night, we’ll find out if the 40-year-old Spoelstra can accomplish that. I’m skeptical, although he certainly has some talented – and dangerous – chess pieces to play with.
On the other end of the court, though, I’m feeling increasingly confident that the seasoned 53-year-old Thibodeau – who might still be underappreciated even though he was named the NBA Coach of the Year – will have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s for all the Bulls’ X’s and O’s in this series.
During Sunday’s game, while the Bulls were weathering the Heat’s initial storm and then absolutely stifling them down the stretch, I just kept thinking how well prepared Thibs’ players looked. And, today, while reading all the players’ postgame comments in the newspapers and online, I’ve kept thinking how well disciplined they’ve sounded.
Case in point: After he turned LeBron James into a near non-factor – no small feat – on Sunday by holding him to 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting, Luol Deng had this to say about his own stellar effort:
“It wasn’t anything I did individually. Our team defense was great.”
That statement, of course, is typical of what we’ve heard out of the Bulls’ mouths all season long. In other words, not much. And, in regards to their individual humility and team mentality, I think that in many ways Thibodeau’s Bulls remind me more of an elite college program more than any other NBA squad I can ever recall.
The saying goes that, in college, players play for the name of the front of their jersey, while in the NBA they play for the name on the back.
These Bulls, though, are most definitely playing for the Bulls as the Bulls, and not as individuals. From Derrick Rose to the end of the bench, every man has bought in to Tom Thibodeau and his no-nonsense, team-first-me-last ways.
Conversely, I’m not convinced the Heat has ever been sold on Erik Spoelstra, but if Miami is to knock off the Bulls, Miami’s coach is going to have to get James, Wade & Co. to buy in.
That is, of course, if he has a game plan worth selling.
Ah yes, the Heat is definitely on.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.