First-time NBA head coach Tom Thibodeau proved he's capable of some tough love and is willing to stray from the game plan during Saturday's comeback victory over Detroit at the United Center.
When second-year forward James Johnson brought a spark off the bench, Thibodeau left Johnson in the game and Luol Deng on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
That one wasn't a difficult call, considering Deng hit just 2 of 10 shots against the Pistons. But Thibodeau also waited until the 4:05 mark of the fourth quarter to send center Joakim Noah back in for Omer Asik, and Noah was a standout, finishing with 17 rebounds, 15 points and 3 blocks.
"The way the game unfolded, we were searching," Thibodeau said Sunday at the Berto Center. "We wanted some energy and we thought Omer and James would do that. If you've been practicing that way, you have a good chance of playing that way and they did a good job."
In the opening loss at Oklahoma City, Johnson and Asik combined to play 2½ minutes. After the Bulls fell behind by 21 points early in the third quarter against Detroit, Thibodeau didn't bother to use Ronnie Brewer or Kurt Thomas in the second half, and limited C.J. Watson to four minutes just so Derrick Rose could get some rest on his way to a 39-point performance.
Thibodeau clearly feels comfortable with ex-Boston forward Brian Scalabrine, who has averaged 15 minutes per game. Scalabrine's reputation as a garbage time-only player appears to be way off target. So far, he's been the steady veteran who comes in and helps everything run more smoothly.
Several Bulls mentioned after Saturday's win that Johnson deserved credit for staying ready after being told he wouldn't be in the regular-season rotation. So that's another Thibodeau trait: being upfront about playing time.
"It was respectful, from one man to another," Johnson said of his chat with the coach. "I've never had anybody just set up a meeting with somebody and say you're not making the rotation, but keep working. That also boosted my confidence.
"It was nothing negative. He felt like he could win with the guys he put in the rotation and all I had to do was keep working. I did and obviously he called my name out when the time was right. I couldn't ask for a better predicament than a game like Detroit."
Johnson also offered a lifetime coaching assessment, meant more as praise for Thibodeau than an indictment of his coaches in Wake Forest or Wyoming.
"I feel my whole basketball career I've never had a hard-nosed coach like Thibodeau before, someone who's dedicated to the game," Johnson said. "He's tough on everybody. Not the new players, not the rookies, not the vets he's tough on everybody. He demands greatness out of everybody and he makes everybody feel like the same level, like there's no all-star when we're out here at practice."
Of course, every Bulls player and coach knows Rose is their all-star, but that's beside the point.
"You don't get yelled at as an individual," Johnson continued. "You take getting yelled at as corrective criticism. You don't take it as, 'Oh he's picking on me.' It makes you a lot more comfortable. You're not scared to take shots."
One of the biggest moments in the Bulls' dominant fourth quarter against Detroit was when Rose drove into the lane and instead of trying to draw contract, fired a pass to Johnson in the corner. Johnson drained a 3-pointer that tied the score with just over five minutes remaining.
Relying on a 34-9 burst in the fourth quarter is a recipe for failure. But Saturday's game showed the Bulls may have some decent depth after all. It just might come from different people each night.
"Ideally, you'd like to know your nine or 10 guys that you're playing every night and have an idea of the type of minutes you want to play them," Thibodeau said. "A guy gets nicked up or a guy fouls out and the minutes change. You can't predict that."