Tom Thibodeau doesn’t want to hear about the so-called “LeBron Rules.’’
The Bulls coach doesn’t care what the numbers say, doesn’t care how hard it looks like the four-time league MVP has to work against Tom Thibodeau-coached teams.
Just more noise as far as he’s concerned.
But if there is a way to solve James, or at least slow him down, Thibodeau seems to have the formula – whether he wanted to admit it or not.
Of the three-worst playoff performances in James’ career, Thibodeau is the man holding the blueprint.
There was the 2008 playoff series against James – before he left Cleveland for the first time – in which Thibodeau was an assistant with the Boston Celtics, and they handcuffed James into shooting 36 percent from the field, 23 percent from three-point range and committing 5.3 turnovers per game.
Gregg Popovich’s 2007 Spurs team held James to 36 percent from the field, 20 percent from three and 5.8 turnovers per game in the Finals sweep, but now it’s once again Thibodeau back in the lab messing with the James mojo in this Eastern Conference semifinal.
Heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 in Cleveland, James was shooting 38 percent from the field, 11 percent from the three-point line and averaging 5.8 turnovers per game.
“To me, superstar players, there are times you can defend them great and perfectly and they still have the ability to make,’’ Thibodeau said after Monday’s film review and shootaround. “You never underestimate that. And I certainly don’t. You need your whole team to be committed to making him work. Even when you do that, he can make plays. So you’re always concerned.’’
Rather than get into the details of slowing down James by making him work harder than other teams seem to do, Thibodeau was more into crediting the defense Jimmy Butler has been playing on James.
“As I said, [James is] a great player,’’ Thibodeau said. “He has hurt us different ways, not necessarily with his scoring. It’s his passing and what it leads to. With a guy like that, you just have to try to make him work.’’
Butler has done that.
James brings the ball up, Butler is on him. James comes off pick-and-roll, Butler is on him. James’ shadow is simply in a Bulls uniform wearing No. 21.
“Jimmy’s done a great job,’’ Joakim Noah said. “We’re disappointed that we lost the game [Sunday]. We had our opportunities. LeBron hit a great shot at the end of the game.’’
Teammate Nikola Mirotic took it a step further, and said as good as Butler’s looked covering James live, it was even more impressive in the film session.
“It’s really impressive,’’ Mirotic said. “Jimmy is our best defensive player on the team, so he’s doing great defense all this year against Cleveland. Of course we need to help Jimmy. They’re doing some pick-and-rolls too, so it’s not just Jimmy, but he’s doing great [defensively].’’
In both the 2007 Finals and the 2008 Boston-Cleveland series, all those bad numbers resulted in defeating a James-led team. With this series now tied 2-2 and it heading back to Cleveland, the jury is still out if defeat is in James’ future again.
But win or lose, James is going to have to earn it. So while Thibodeau would never divulge the details of his game plan against the two-time NBA champion, it’s about making the road as bumpy as possible.
“You’re trying to make him work,’’ Thibodeau reiterated. “But you also have to be aware of what he’s doing for other people too. He’s a load to deal with.’’