By Brendan McCaffrey-

(CBS) The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same for coach Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls. There remains only one Thibodeau: the relentless, tunnel-visioned skipper.

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While Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer seemed content with letting his bench garner some experience late in Thursday night’s 85-84 Bulls’ victory at the United Center, Thibodeau couldn’t help but snap back to the coach with seemingly little vision beyond the final horn of the game right in front of him.  When the Bulls’ bench trimmed a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to 12, Thibodeau smelled victory. He responded by inserting three starters to play the final 6:07 of a meaningless exhibition and finish a job that didn’t need finishing. Jimmy Butler’s game-winning 3-pointer and one-man fourth quarter show won’t matter by the time the Bulls suit up on Oct. 29 in New York City for opening night.

At best, bringing Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol back into the game looks like a questionable move by a coach who wanted to get his veterans some fourth-quarter minutes. At worst, it was a reckless decision to risk three starters to injury who are already accustomed to heavy regular-season minutes.

Nobody suggests these guys should be hermetically sealed through the entire preseason, but what was there to be gained with extra minutes that won’t count?

Thibodeau spoke after the game about players like Noah needing these minutes, presumably to shake off early season rust. This is the same Noah coming off of arthoscopic knee surgery in the offseason, the same player with seven years of experience in the league and the wear and tear to prove it. Twenty minutes of game action just wasn’t enough, apparently, and back into the game went Noah in the fourth.

“(Noah) really needs the minutes, too,” Thibodeau said after the game. “I thought Jo got going as the game went along, so that was a really good sign.”
As for Gasol, Thibodeau added that the 34-year old big man asked to return late.

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“Pau wanted to get some work in, and Jimmy’s played well throughout, so I think it’s good to have him out there to finish games, anyway,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau notably spared Derrick Rose from returning, mentioning that Rose “could have played” if need be. To his credit, when asked about not coming back into the game in the fourth quarter, Rose sounded like somebody aware of the ultimate goal of this season.

“There’s no rush at all,” Rose said. “Knowing how hard I worked, I’m not worried about it. When the time is right, it’s right.”

It wasn’t right on Thursday evening at the United Center, not in mid-October. Not for this talented, veteran-laden team with expectations far higher than a throwaway preseason victory. Earlier in the week, Thibodeau shared his desire with reporters to emulate Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.  Days later, with a chance to act like Popovich would, he treated the fourth quarter of a preseason game as if he’s jockeying for final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

“We still have a long way to go, we know that,” Thibodeau said. “Day by day, (we must) just continue to build.”

A long way to go, indeed.

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Brendan McCaffrey is the sports director at 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @b_mccaffrey.