The Bulls showed some frustration in the heat of a playoff chase against the Knicks on Wednesday night, as coach Billy Donovan, forward Daniel Theis and center Nikola Vucevic were called for technical fouls in a 113-94 loss at Madison Square Garden.
But the reality is that they got Thibodeau-ed.
The joy of watching Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls teams a decade ago was not just the showdowns with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, but their battles with other contenders, where Thibodeau’s Bulls wore down quality teams with mental and physical toughness that almost willed their way to victory down the stretch of close games, often getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials by virtue of their aggressiveness.
Donovan’s Bulls were that victim this time, as Thibodeau’s Knicks bullied the Bulls and almost literally punched them in the face from the start. Theis got a technical after he was bloodied in one collision. And guard Coby White was hit across the face with no call as he drove toward the basket.
“We let our emotions get the best of us and we overreacted on certain things,” said Vucevic, who scored 26 points and added 18 rebounds but didn’t get enough help. “So we just have to do a better job of not letting those type of things affect us and take our focus away from the game plan and the game itself.”
The Bulls responded in the first half — cutting an 18-point deficit in the first quarter (30-12) to four at halftime (52-48). They eventually took the lead twice in the third quarter at 59-58 and again at 75-74 on a three-point play by Lauri Markkanen (14 points, seven rebounds) off a turnaround in the lane with 58 seconds left.
But after the Knicks regained the lead at 76-75 to end the third quarter, they scored the first nine points of the third quarter in a 15-2 run that gave them a 91-77 lead with 7:34 to go. This time the Bulls did not respond, withering in the end toward a 19-point loss that dropped them two games behind the Wizards for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
And it provided a lesson for a team learning how to win.
“Just try to keep playing, no matter what,” forward Thad Young said. “That’s the biggest thing. We got a little frustrated as a team. Theis got a tech. Coach got a tech. We can’t have that at those moments of the game where guys are getting techs and they’re already making a run and pushing the lead out.
“Them getting techs just worsens the blow, so we just gotta figure out how to stay poised throughout the course of a game and just try to keep building.”
It was a lesson in mental and physical toughness. The Knicks (35-28) obviously have it under Thibodeau — they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games. The Bulls (26-36, now 4-4 without guard Zach LaVine) are learning how to acquire it — and how to respond to it.
“This is really good for our team,” Donovan said. “When you get down to this time of the year, you look at guys like Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. They’ve got veteran guys who have been through a lot of wars throughout their careers who are probably great leaders in that locker room. And obviously Thibs has been around for a long time as well.
“So these are experiences we have to through with a guy like Lauri, with a Patrick Williams, with a Coby White. They’ve got to see some of this stuff and they’ve got to learn to play under that kind of duress and pressure.”