There was a time when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was thought to have the blueprint to controlLeBron James.
During his days as an assistant with the Boston Celtics, Thibodeau’s defense gave James headaches. That was especially true in the 2010 playoffs, when the Celtics held James — then in his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers — in check for three of the six games in their series victory.
The problem is, that was a long time ago and with completely different personnel.
James has evolved since. He won two championship rings in his four seasons with the Miami Heat and went through Thibodeau-coached Bulls teams twice in the process.
So are there any pieces of that blueprint that still exist?
‘‘Yeah, we slowed him down,’’ Thibodeau said sarcastically Sunday. ‘‘I think he had 45.’’
Actually, James’ high game in that 2010 playoff series was 38 points, but he did have a 42-point game against the Celtics earlier that season.
Nonetheless, James always has paid tribute to Thibodeau’s defensive mind. And it’s clear Thibodeau has the highest respect for James.
‘‘He’s a great player,’’ Thibodeau said on the eve of the Bulls’ opener against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. ‘‘The only thing you can do with him is you can try to make him work for his points. You can’t really give him a steady diet of anything; you have to mix it up on him. He can beat you a lot of different ways. It’s not only his scoring; it’s his passing.
‘‘He’s seen every type of defense there is. We just have to be tied together, try to make him work, and you can’t neglect the rest of their team. That’s what makes him who he is.’’
The task of guarding James will start with Jimmy Butler. He was drafted as a defensive stopper, and he will face no bigger challenge than what the Bulls will ask him to do for the next couple of weeks.
When Butler needs a rest, expect Tony Snell to get a few minutes on James. The hope is that Snell’s length will give James a different look and a new set of problems.
‘‘It’s absolutely a very difficult cover for anyone, for any team,’’ power forward Pau Gasol said of slowing down James. ‘‘He attracts a lot of attention. Physically, he’s a guy that dominates the game, so we have to help the guy that is guarding him. Make him take tough shots, hopefully force him into turnovers, reduce his easy points. But it’s a team effort.’’
The Cavaliers will be short-handed, with power forward Kevin Love out for the season with a dislocated shoulder and shooting guard J.R. Smith out for the first two games of the series because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself in the first round.
Just don’t try to sell Thibodeau on the idea that James and Co. are somehow at a disadvantage.
‘‘Any team that has LeBron and Kyrie [Irving], you’re not short-handed,’’ Thibodeau said.
And as far as taking anything from his days with the Celtics five seasons ago, Thibodeau said James’ evolution makes that difficult.
‘‘He is so smart,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘I think he has learned a lot from all his experiences. Very, very bright guy. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team, your team. He’s a great all-around player. There’s not anything that he doesn’t do great. When you have a guy like that, you have to make sure your team is locked in to him, and you have to make him work.’’