By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – It took a wine-loving, sarcasm-exuding five-time champion coach turning serious, but the lingering question of the past week was put to rest Thursday night outside the visitor’s locker room at the United Center.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Black Ice, Frostbite Risk As Wind Chills Drop Below Zero Tuesday
Has Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau lost touch with his team amid the recent struggles?
“Whoever asked me that question before the game – about they’re not listening to Thibs, Thibs has lost them and that kind of bull****, you got your answer,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after a 104-81 loss at Chicago. “As I told you before the game, that’s baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. And hopefully whoever asked that question can figure that out instead of making stuff up.”
After outsiders spent the better part of the past three days wondering what had gone so wrong with Chicago during a span in which it had lost six of eight and been embarrassed at Cleveland on Monday, the Bulls (28-16) responded in the manner that had many around these parts championship dreaming in the first place.
The Bulls dug in defensively, holding the defending champion Spurs to 37 percent shooting.
They controlled the glass, posting a sparkling 81 defensive rebounding percentage.
They followed point guard Derrick Rose’s lead, as he scored a game-high 22 points and generally just opened the floor for everyone else.
Seventeen days after a strong home win against the Rockets, we saw Bulls basketball once again.
“I thought the Bulls were physically and mentally committed to playing a great game,” Popovich said. “I thought our play was humiliating and embarrassing because of the Bulls’ tenacity and their sense of purpose.”
Sounds familiar, right? Well, the noise from earlier in the week was anything but.
On Monday, a report from NBA writer Chris Sheridan surfaced that indicated Thibodeau was on the “hot seat.” Even though the logic didn’t add up and the report was refuted, many were understandably wondering what was going wrong later that evening after the Bulls were abysmal and listless in a 108-94 loss to the Cavaliers.READ MORE: Uber Driver Shot On Eisenhower Expressway
The catch in all the hoopla of the last several days was that it was misplaced. Odds are still that the Bulls will fall short of their championship goal, but if they do, it will be for their deficiencies on the floor – health, a lack of athleticism and troubles in effectively meshing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah.
It won’t be because they’re not listening to Thibodeau. It won’t be because they don’t respect Thibodeau. It won’t be because they’re too stressed out by Thibodeau.
Rose emphasized as much Thursday night – it’s on the players.
“This don’t have anything to do with Thibs at all,” Rose said. “The way we’ve been playing don’t have anything to do with Thibs. He’s preparing us right. He’s doing everything and did everything possible to prepare us. It’s up to the players to give the effort.”
The Bulls held a team meeting Tuesday that all parties have classified as productive and in which they addressed “what we had in front of us and solutions to how we can play better,” Thibodeau said. To listen to Thibodeau downplay it, it wasn’t a come-to-basketball-Jesus meeting.
It was noteworthy in this manner, though: Rose said it was the first time he could remember the Bulls having such a meeting. In that sense, it was Thibodeau meeting his players on a middle ground, a means of admitting that a veteran-led team can find answers in more places than just practice.
More than anything, the meeting was about refocusing, about reminding of what can be attained, about getting “back to normal” in practice and games, as Taj Gibson said.
“The tone was obviously serious,” Gasol said. “Because we’re on a serious mission, a serious situation. So everybody just shared our thoughts and tried to be positive and encouraging to everyone. It’s time to get it together. It’s time to react.”
For the Bulls, all their goals are still within reach. And on Thursday, they also reminded everyone that they’re attainable with the proper approach and execution.
“Who knows – this could be a blessing in disguise,” Rose said of overcoming adversity. “We know it’s a hard challenge, but with the team that we have and where we want to be, we have to be willing to take on this challenge.”MORE NEWS: 81-Year-Old Woman Dies After Avalon Park House Fire
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.