In the past three years, Tom Thibodeau has situated himself as one of the league’s best coaches. A primary reason for this has been his ability to stop LeBron James.
Ok—“stop” may be an overstatement, but no coach has contained him quite like Thibodeau. Coach Thibs has an uncanny way of taking James out of his comfort zone, and it at least makes LeBron appear human. This was evident in Game 3, when James shot 6-of-17 from the field.
Furthermore, it helps Chicago generate mind-boggling wins against the loaded Heat. The Derrick Rose-less Bulls split against Miami during the regular season and have already posed problems in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. There’s clearly something unique about Chicago’s strategy, and it centers upon Thibodeau’s crafty schemes in limiting James’ dominance.
After studying the wrinkles Thibs concocts in his approach, there are numerous consistencies to highlight. These stratagems provide enough information for a guide—a specific four-step master plan on keeping the four-time MVP in check.
Step 1: Pressure Far From the Basket
It must be said that the Bulls possess some quality perimeter defenders in Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng (when healthy). Such wings help the Bulls pester James effectively. But, Chicago’s restraint of James doesn’t revolve around their versatile wings. They’re merely stellar pieces to the machine that Thibs runs.
Thibodeau positions them effectively. This placement originates when the “LeBron stopper” picks up James early and often. Thibs makes it a point to check James far from the basket, where he isn’t even in shooting range. Some may find this questionable, but Chicago’s constant pressure makes LeBron work excessively hard—or it forces the ball out of his hands.
The pictures below illustrate this. Notice Jimmy Butler checking James close to half court.
This heavy pressure sets the tone for Chicago's handling of LeBron. He is forced to work for everything as soon as he steps across the center circle. Even when he does barrel through the defense for a contested layup, he expends much energy.
The Bulls defense exemplifies the motto "no easy buckets." Rarely does James find uncomplicated scoring opportunities against Chicago, and this is largely because of Thibs' emphasis upon pressure far from the basket.
Step 2: Collective Effort
As previously mentioned, Butler and Deng are superb defenders, but Thibodeau doesn't rely on their individual efforts against James. He wisely grasps that there's no human on earth who is up for that task.
Thibs has masterfully developed schemes to collectively hinder LeBron. This means everyone on the floor plays a role. Help-side defense, double-teams off ball screens and uncompromised rim protection reveal Chicago’s five-man method.
Thibs loves players who absorb this identity—understanding their roles in the team defense. Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Butler are great examples of this.
This picture conveys this collective effort, as Chicago’s secondary defense and heightened attention towards James is evident from each player, especially Noah and Gibson.
Here is an example of an aggressive double-team, which prompted a LeBron pass.
This eventually led to a three by Norris Cole, but you can't argue with the tactic. Would you rather take your chances on LeBron penetrating towards the rim, or force a contested three from a streaky player like Cole?
The answer is obvious. Take your chances on Cole's jumper. If he knocks it down, you tip your hat to him.
Schematically, there is rarely anything about Chicago's approach that is worth questioning. This is what makes Thibs' process of stopping LeBron efficient. Yes, the Heat will still find scoring chances, but LeBron will work excessively hard and they will often have to turn towards third and fourth options.
This is because the Bulls' suffocating, collective focus creates problems for James, forcing him and the Heat to creatively adapt.
Step 3: Timing and Intellect
Help-side defense and double-teams are not advanced concepts. Anyone who has spent time around the game of basketball can grasp the idea.
However, there are few coaches and teams who can consistently produce through such collective attempts.
Help-side defense and double-teams frequently hurt a defense when the timing is off, particularly when the opponent has the league MVP. If a defender shows at the wrong instant (merely a second too early or late), then that could easily result in a wide-open look.
In Miami's case, LeBron will almost always take advantage of the slightest miscue by either getting to the rim or dishing to an open shooter.
On the other hand, if the timing is exact, the would've-been-open look becomes a heavily contested shot. Thibs has engrained this timing into their game plan against James. Their helpers arrive on time and also return to their matchups quickly (upon a pass). Further, they don't show help-side defense when it's unnecessary (if LeBron hasn't beat his man).
What's more, they also wisely determine which players they'll leave open as a result of their help, including Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, Cole and even Dwyane Wade (a subpar long-range shooter).
This is what distinguishes Chicago's system. They rarely break down or miscommunicate. They guard with precise timing and shrewdness, and their exploits should be sold at a basketball clinic.
Step 4: No Excuses
"We have more than enough to win" has become one of Thibodeau's famous phrases. It has been the Bulls' outlook this whole season, as they have never been at full strength.
But we have not once heard even a hint of an excuse from Thibs. He always believes they have enough to win, even if seemingly every prominent contributor is sidelined or at least hampered by an injury.
While this mentality has nothing to do with defensive schemes, it does lay the foundation for facing LeBron. No excuses, get the job done, play a full 48 minutes and know we have enough to win.
He embodies a driven posture that at times seems like irrational hope. But, he still finds ways to win, leaving fans in baffled admiration at his mental capacity and preparation. Their Game 7 win over the Brooklyn Nets followed by the Game 1 victory over Miami is ample proof of his determination.
So, how does this step land on Thibodeau's guide? Because Thibs literally has the Bulls believing they can stop LeBron.
Even when all of us fans think it's impossible or a mere dream, the Bulls honestly think they can not only contain James, but also beat Miami. And it doesn't matter how many All-Stars (Rose, Deng) aren't in uniform.
Thibs has instilled confidence and grit into this Bulls bunch. This step is what enlivens all their efforts. They trust their defensive approach because they see the tenacity of their coach. He means business at all times.
And there's never any excuses. I mean, never. There's something contagious about that.
The fact that Thibodeau netted eighth in the Coach of the Year voting was quite a shame. What he has done this season with a laughable amount of injuries is remarkable.
Even if the Bulls are ousted by Miami in the coming days, we have definitely learned something: If anybody can craft the plan to eliminate LeBron and the star-studded Heat, it's Coach Thibs.