By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Tom Thibodeau strode through the visitor’s tunnel of the United Center just before 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the crowd’s warmth found him quickly.
Back in the building that he prowled for five seasons as Bulls coach from 2010-’15, Thibodeau took a moment to wave to the cheering fans during his entrance. Minutes later, after his starters had been introduced, PA announcer Tommy Edwards bellowed, “The Chicago Bulls welcome back Tom Thibodeau, the head coach of the Timberwolves.”
Thibodeau was greeted with a hearty ovation from the crowd. He soon took his usual pose, standing all game long and pacing and contorting and pointing along the sidelines. It would be a night full of twists and turns, the Wolves rallying from a 21-point second-quarter deficit to steal a 99-94 win over the Bulls, who were left short on words while Thibodeau’s group found a respite for at least a night.
No, there wasn’t extra satisfaction in this win, Thibodeau claimed afterward.
“It’s how you frame everything,” said Thibodeau, who led the Bulls to the playoffs in all five of his seasons and boasts the second-best winning percentage in franchise history. “As a person, you’re in control of that. So when I look back at the time that I was here, I love what we did. There were far more great times than there were problem times.”
Those words continued a theme of Thibodeau’s since he was unceremoniously fired in May 2015 because of a rift with management and a departure from the culture the Bulls sought. Time and again, Thibodeau has taken the high road, showing appreciation for the organization giving him a chance, calling the Chicago a “great sports” town and thanking the fans.
The Bulls had a chance to match that tone and end, now and forever, what they often call the outside “noise” regarding such storylines. There had already been video tributes this season for Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and even Pau Gasol in their returns to the United Center. There was none for Thibodeau, hard feelings still had on both sides if not acknowledged.
“In the end, it didn’t end great, but most of the time it was great,” Thibodeau said in reflecting.
While Thibodeau was complimentary to all off the court, he can never hide his emotions on it. Thibodeau was, by his standards, quiet and subdued early on as the Bulls raced out to a 26-6 lead. For a time, it appeared nothing Thibodeau would do or say would make a difference in this game.
His sideline histrionics picked up in the second quarter as the Wolves climbed back, then were really activated in the second half as his team took the lead. Just like old days, Thibodeau stomped, waved, cursed, frowned and squinted. He took every opportunity to give the officials an earful.
Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota is nothing like his debut season in Chicago, that 62-win gem of 2010-’11. Still, on this night, Thibodeau saw his group grow up a little bit, mature and take the defensive end as seriously in the final three quarters as he always stresses.
In pregame interviews, Thibodeau referenced a favorite mantra, saying you have to put the work in each and every day. He referenced more familiar lines afterward.
“The winning part is important for us just to build confidence,” Thibodeau said. “To understand what goes into winning, how hard it is to win. You can’t take any plays off.”
Just prior to tip-off, the two Bulls mainstays left from the Thibodeau era took a moment to acknowledge him. Both Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson went out of their way to give him a hug. Butler did so with a smile.
Butler’s mood was in stark contrast to that later, after the Bulls had strengthened their hold on being the league’s worst 3-point shooting team with a 4-of-15 showing from behind the arc, after familiar fourth-quarter offensive struggles surfaced again, with too much isolation ball contributing to 7-of-22 shooting in the frame.
Asked what his emotions were like facing Thibodeau, Butler wasn’t interested in broaching the topic anymore.
“Next question,” Butler said.
It was that kind of night for the Bulls, who are searching for answers.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and coversthe Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.