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Tom Thibodeau still looking for closing time

If it was up to Tom Thibodeau, he would have his closing five at this point in the regular season.

“Those five dawgs to just finish things off,’’ as reserve big man Taj Gibson has described in the past.

Unfortunately for Thibodeau, very little has gone as scripted this season. Injuries, minutes restrictions, unexpected improvement from young players – each have left the Bulls coach searching for late-game continuity.

And with Derrick Rose admittedly closer to returning from Feb. 27 right knee surgery, it would seem that the water is about to get a bit murkier.

That’s why guard Jimmy Butler threw out an interesting idea after the Wednesday night come-from-behind win in Toronto.

“I think whoever is playing the best on any given night should be out there,’’ Butler said, when the topic of closing out games came up. “Hell, if I’m terrible I wouldn’t want myself out there to hurt the team. Nothing against anybody, but I think you should put the five guys on the floor that are going to help us win games.’’

In that win over the Raptors, Thibodeau started the fourth with Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Gibson, Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic on the floor.

Tony Snell came in and grabbed Butler for a breather three minutes in, and then Aaron Brooks came in for Gibson. With six minutes left, in came Butler for Hinrich, and with just over five minutes left, in came Pau Gasol for Noah.

The Bulls finished the game with Butler, Snell, Brooks, Gasol and Mirotic, with Mirotic the only one that played the entire quarter.

Meanwhile, sitting on the bench was last year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year in Noah, as well as the most efficient fourth-quarter player they had last season in Gibson.

With just eight games left and maybe a handful of practices, it would seem that Thibodeau is short on time in defining that closing group, but maybe Butler is right. Maybe this year’s depth can dictate hot man, hot hand stays.

“The weapons are obviously huge, but the way they’re playing off each other is important too,’’ Thibodeau said of his depth. “A guy can score points and you lose, and that’s not effective. The challenge is to bring the best out of all your teammates as well. And so guys are recognizing that. They’re playing to each other’s strengths, covering up weaknesses, and that’s how you have to play. That’s playing smart basketball.

“The challenge will be to continue moving in that direction, to building continuity, and we’re heading down the stretch here, so there’s a lot of work to be done.’’

Once Rose returns, there’s no doubt that he will be one of those closing five. Butler’s name is written down in pen, as well. It’s the emergence of Mirotic, however, that has thrown in a new wrinkle. Even in scoring just five of his 15 points in that final quarter, Mirotic leads the entire NBA in fourth-quarter scoring for the month of March.

Thibodeau has shown that he has no problem riding that hot streak out, especially with Mirotic being such a matchup nightmare for fives that switch to him or when he’s playing the three-spot.

That leaves really just two spots.

In all likelihood, matchups will play a big part in determining that final group. Big vs. small, defense for offense. Thibodeau at least has options, which couldn’t be said the past few seasons.

Either way, it’s a nice problem to have.