It was the Tom Thibodeau Paradox in all its misery Tuesday night. The relentlessness and mental toughness that drives the Bulls to overachieve in the regular season ruined them in the playoffs.
“I’m proud of the team,” Thibodeau said after a dreadful 75-69 loss to the Washington Wizards at the United Center that ended the Bulls’ season. “They gave us everything they had. There was nothing left. That’s all you can ask for as a coach.”
Therein lies the problem with Tom Thibodeau as coach of the Bulls. That “there was nothing left” is a source of pride for him when it was a blazing red flag to the rest of us. The only time a team like the Bulls should be proud of being gassed in the postseason is while they struggle to hold up the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning an NBA title. Or maybe after losing in six or seven games to the Heat.
That they had so little left at the end of this series is nothing to be proud of, because they had so little at the beginning as well. This was not just a bad night or a bad series. This was not a fluke or happenstance. That the Bulls so overtly fell flat and from start to finish against the Washington Wizards is a problem — one that leaves two questions entering the offseason: Will the Bulls acknowledge it? And will Thibodeau do anything about it?
As much as Thibodeau bristles at questions about minutes, he would be doing himself and the organization a disservice to ignore the impact that his win-every-game-at-all-costs style had in the postseason. In four of the final five games of the regular season, Jimmy Butler played 45 minutes or more; Joakim Noah played 40 minutes or more; and Mike Dunleavy played 37 minutes or more.
In the regular-season finale against the Charlotte Bobcats, while other coaches were resting regulars for the postseason, Thibodeau played Butler 48 minutes, Noah and Dunleavy 42 and D.J. Augustin 36. In fairness, the Bulls were playing for what we thought was the all-important No. 3 seed in the playoffs. But even considering that, those minutes raised eyebrows at the time.
Let the record show that Thibodeau reached a new level of success with his hard-driving coaching style this season. Outside of Derrick Rose’s injury, the Bulls appeared to be in great shape in the final month of the regular season. Thibodeau had the same starting lineup for the final 26 regular-season games — the longest stretch of consecutive starting lineups in his five seasons as head coach. Relative to Thibodeau’s standard, he babied Kirk Hinrich’s playing time after Hinrich returned from his latest injury.
And while Thibodeau is correct in arguing that young, healthy players should be able to handle big minutes, the playoff series against the Wizards seems to indicate that there is a limit. It’s not a coincidence that the only crunch-time player who was as good or better against the Wizards than in the regular season was the one with the fewest regular-season minutes — Taj Gibson, who averaged 18.2 points and shot 56 percent from the field vs. the Wizards.
As entertaining as it is to watch teams with as much or more talent than the Bulls get “Thibodeau-ed” in the regular season, it’s still only the regular season. The Bulls reel in the Atlanta Hawks every time. But while the Bulls are done, the eighth-seeded Hawks have a shot at a playoff upset of the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, leading 3-2 heading into Game 6 Thursday night in Atlanta.
For what it’s worth, coach Mike Budenholzer — a Greg Popovich disciple — rested his regulars in the final two games of the season. Paul Millsap, who did not play in the Hawks’ final two regular-seasons games, is averaging 21 points and 8.2 rebounds a game against the Pacers.
Of course, Pacers coach Frank Vogel also rested his starters in the final week of the season and his once-mighty team is fighting for survival tonight. But the point is that almost every coach of a contending team pulls back the reins a little bit in the final week of the regular season. Tom Thibodeau is a great coach, one of the best in the NBA. But what are the odds that almost everybody else is wrong and he is right?