CHICAGO (CBS) – Lost about halfway through Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s postgame press conference Monday night after an 89-77 win against the Pacers at the United Center was a telling admission.
For all the game-planning he does, for all the endless film he consumes and tweaks he makes to find the slightest advantage, such work often doesn’t make a difference in the end, when the games matter most and the emotion is in its purest form.
“When you look at the playoffs and you watch what transpires, usually whichever team wins the first game, the next game the biggest adjustment everyone talks about, ‘They tweaked this or they changed their defense on this,’” Thibodeau said. “Well, the biggest adjustment is usually the edge, the intensity of the game. You only get intensity from great concentration and great effort. That’s where intensity comes from.”
This take was significant because of the team Thibodeau coaches. For all their faults offensively, for their razor-thin margin of error, the Bulls always, always, always believe they can play with more fire than their foes, and that gives them confidence.
On Monday, Chicago’s passion came from looking back to Friday, when the game slipped out of its grasp in the third quarter of a 91-79 loss at Indiana. As the rough-and-tumble Pacers controlled the rebounding battle, they smiled, snickered and engaged in smack talk.
Taj Gibson remembered all this, like the Bulls remember every slight that can be used to channel their edge.
“They were laughing, and it was frustrating when you’re playing against a team that’s similar to you and they’re like your rival and they’re slapping fives and laughing in your face,” Gibson said of Friday. “We take too much pride rebounding the ball and playing solid basketball.”
In the midst of battering and prancing his way to a game-high 23 points Monday, Gibson unleashed his pent-up rage following a key third-quarter sequence. With Pacers star Paul George racing down court for a transition bucket that would’ve cut the Bulls’ lead to four, Kirk Hinrich stripped the ball from him.
Moments later, Jimmy Butler missed a running layup, but Gibson followed with a tip slam for an eight-point lead. When Indiana countered with a timeout, Gibson teamed up with Joakim Noah for a flying chest bump.
Afterward, Thibodeau pointed out that every game is a chance to reveal something. He stopped short of saying what Monday meant, but by the Bulls’ words, you could tell the message to a rival was that there’s no overlooking them, that they’re not the team that sputtered to an ugly road defeat Friday in Indianapolis.
“Whether it draws attention from wherever, I don’t know,” Hinrich said. “But you know, the guys in this locker room believe.
“It’s a big win. Every game with Indy is a battle.”
The prevailing belief is that the Heat and Pacers are on a collision course to meet in the conference finals, and this almost certainly will happen given the glaring faults of their Eastern brethren.
Just be careful to not confuse that consensus with the Bulls viewing themselves as inferiors to the Pacers. Where LeBron James’ otherworldly talents and Miami’s playoff conquests of Chicago can spark doubt in the back of the Bulls’ minds, the Pacers’ accomplishments do not.
They may not say it, but the Bulls want the Pacers, with whom they split the four-game season series. They want the bruising fight that would await against an Indiana team that, in Chicago’s eyes, chirps and flops too much.
“They’re playing for the same thing as us, trying to get over the hump, just trying to make it deep in the playoffs,” Gibson said.
“We got the same kind of mentality. It’s like looking at your twin.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.