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Tom Thibodeau's Stay-the-Course Approach Is Key to Chicago Bulls' Success

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2015

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CHICAGO — After an awful first three quarters, not once did Tom Thibodeau think about benching Derrick Rose.

It would have been a completely understandable decision. Thirty-six minutes into the Bulls’ 106-101 Thursday night win over the Denver Nuggets, Rose was 2-of-14 from the field with four points and no sign of breaking out of his shooting slump anytime soon.

Thibodeau’s faith was rewarded with a 13-point fourth quarter. Rose got to the rim and to the foul line, and he provided the spark as the Bulls won a game in which they’d trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half.

Rose has said for the last several days, as his shooting has cratered, that he wasn’t going to change anything he was doing, that he was sure he’d play himself out of it. It’s a mentality that’s been instilled in Rose, and in every other Bulls player, by their coach.

“Players go through it,” Thibodeau said after the game. “He won’t be the first or the last player to go through a slump. As long as he’s shooting the ball properly and they’re the right shots, it happens.”

Thibodeau has a few pet phrases that he likes to repeat at basically any opportunity, and they’re a telling window into his worldview. One is, “You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low.” He’s never been one to panic, and he isn’t going to change his rotation because of a couple of bad performances.

Another of Thibs’ favorite sayings is, “The magic is in the work.” Like all successful NBA coaches, he stresses process over results. If one game doesn’t go the way he wants it to, he’ll live with it if he sees his players playing the right way.

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That’s why, for as hard as he works his players, for as much of a drill sergeant as he is, he’s never lost his locker room during his five seasons in Chicago. His players know he has their backs as long as they put in the hours.

“That’s the thing about Thibs,” backup point guard Aaron Brooks said at practice last week. “Some coaches contradict themselves, but he’s always consistent with what he tells us. So even if you don’t always like it, you have to respect it.”

In and around games, Thibodeau is a maniacally in-the-moment coach. He flat-out refuses to discuss any games beyond the next one up, or get into big-picture hypotheticals about his team or any other. But he isn’t so caught up in an individual game that he’ll be prone to making a drastic change.

In Tuesday’s blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Bulls put together another clunker of a second quarter against Brooklyn and trailed by 10 points at halftime. But Thibodeau has seen this core of players play together so much that he never felt compelled to do anything rash, and that steadiness paid off with a win.

“As a team, we’re in a little bit of a funk,” Thibodeau said on Thursday. “That’s what I liked about the second half. Everyone got going. Everyone gave a little more and made a few hustle plays, and that’s what got us going. And usually, that’s what happens. You make some hustle plays, it unites, it inspires, and then you get a couple of easy baskets. All of a sudden, you find a rhythm. We have to be able to count on that on the nights we don’t shoot well. We still have to be able to win a game.”

It’s a little surprising to hear a coach describe a team that’s won eight of its past 10 games as being “in a funk,” especially after a game they controlled for the entire fourth quarter. But Thibodeau knows what this team is capable of, and his obsession with the process is crucial to the Bulls’ ability to reach their ceiling.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 23: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls (C) celebrates after hitting a shot to end the first half with teammates Joakim Noah #13 and Pau Gasol #16 against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on December 23, 2014 in Washingt
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“Part of it is your season, where you are [in the schedule],” the coach said. “Part of it is guys in and out [of the lineup], and you need guys to practice together to build rhythm.”

“You should see our practices,” Rose added. “We have a lot of practices where we only score six to eight points in an entire quarter, and guys aren’t making shots. That’s what we’ve got to fight through.

“We’re just used to it. Our guys have a lot of experience, and then adding Pau [Gasol], someone that’s won championships, he’s someone that’s coming over and helping us in his leadership role. That’s why we’re a good team.”

Since Thibodeau came to the Bulls in 2010, the team has taken on his image, and it’s one of work, steadiness and consistency. As aggravating as it can be sometimes to see him be so rigid with his rotations, it’s hard to argue with the results he gets.

Rose still isn’t where he needs to be, but he’s not going to get there by panicking and second-guessing himself after a few bad games. He’s going to get there by trusting the process and the mentality that Thibodeau has instilled in the locker room.

It won’t always be pretty, but staying the course hasn’t failed Thibodeau before.

Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin

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