By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Chicagoans can be forgiven for assuming that their hard-ass NBA coach has burned out his connection to the team. It has happened before.
Tom Thibodeau makes us see ghosts.
Many recall Doug Collins, he of the “Boogie Nights” perm and relentless intensity, living and dying with every outcome, calling a set play every trip down the floor, clashing with Michael Jordan over scorekeeping in a scrimmage, and eventually being forced out in favor of his hippy-dippy assistant.
Or we see fist-faced Scott Skiles grimacing and snarking, squeezing fleeting success out of young overachievers before souring on his roster and falling into a sadomasochistic spiral that spun him out onto the street.
So when the Bulls endure a 6-9 stretch like they have since the start of February – including a demoralizing loss at home to Cleveland – some wonder prematurely if this latest taskmaster has hit the assumed expiration date, adding his name to the list of those with styles or personalities too severe to sustain success.
Recent performances by players both good and bad should tell you to slow your roll on that idea.
First, Joakim Noah remains the barometer for effort and attention. It’s easy to see the relentless professional that he has become and forget the idiotic child that he once was. The same guy first out to the floor for warm-ups and playing starter’s minutes on aching feet is the one who once could never make a bus on time and was just as concerned with weed and cognac as he was his job.
It means something that the now 28-year-old is so fully invested in Thibodeau, having matured under his leadership. He’s no superstar talent, but it’s inarguable that Noah is playing at a career-prime level amid challenging times for an injury-crippled team.
Also, yet another bench is contributing beyond the skills of its individual parts, after an offseason of total upheaval. The Bulls lost last night, but when they got a good run on both ends of the floor from a lineup of Marquis Teague, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovich, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler on the road against a conference contender, it was reminder enough that Thibodeau is doing something right. If I had told you at the end of last season that the Bulls would have that group on the floor in 2013, you would have laughed. And thrown up. Perhaps both at the same time.
Down a key forward and two veteran guards – Taj Gibson out with a knee sprain and Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton both out with their usual age-related combinations of osteoporosis, incontinence and dementia – the Bulls competed.
They are still listening.
I’m not trying to tell you they are great. I’m not trying to tell you they are going to win a title this year or in any foreseeable future that involves LeBron James or Kevin Durant playing for other teams. I’m also not trying to tell you that there will never be a time that Thibodeau’s message ceases to resonate, or that his obsessive tendencies are not reason to keep a close eye on how he operates.
But we don’t need to panic, yet. Not about him. This Bulls team is exactly what we expected it to be because of Thibodeau: it’s undermanned due to attrition and roster disorder, waiting for its star to return, and still holding solid in the East at 34-26, mostly by defending and rebounding in coordinated groups, over and over again.
The players are not exactly stylish or telegenic, nor do they wow you with flashy personality or slickness. They just keep coming to work, whatever that may accomplish.
Remind you of anybody?
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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