Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t worry about stepping on anyone’s toes and is willing to discard the game plan, if necessary.
For two straight games, he essentially left Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Hinrich did check in briefly as a defensive replacement late during Tuesday’s 99-93 victory over Orlando.
When the Bulls lost to New Orleans on Saturday, Marco Belinelli was on the floor instead of Hamilton and the fourth-quarter lineup didn’t get the job done. The Bulls couldn’t overcome a small deficit and lost 89-82.
Against Orlando, defensive specialist Jimmy Butler took Hamilton’s spot, and this time the Bulls won the fourth quarter 31-23. Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson played the fourth quarter of both contests, joining starters Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.
“That’s why you’re a team. You have to put the team first,” Thibodeau said Wednesday at the Berto Center. “Everyone has to sacrifice. You have to recognize if someone’s going well, maybe it’s better for the team if they finish.
“We’re always going to do what’s best for the team first.”
Thibodeau sitting starters in the fourth quarter is not a new concept. During the 2011 playoffs, he began a habit of leaving both Boozer and Noah on the bench, while using Gibson and Omer Asik as defensive stoppers down the stretch. Kyle Korver often played shooting guard in fourth quarters.
It didn’t take long for Thibodeau to get comfortable with Robinson, who contributed 7 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter against Orlando.
“Kirk has played well. His size and ability to defend is critical,” Thibodeau said. “Nate can break people down off the dribble. So their strengths are different. We need them both, and you may see them both out there together.
“We’ve always finished with different people. Each night someone’s got a hot hand going; we’re going to try to milk that. A lot depends on what’s going on on the floor.”
In the season opener against Sacramento, Thibodeau used nine players in the fourth quarter of a relatively close game. That night Boozer led the way with 7 fourth-quarter points.
One surprising constant, though, has been Noah’s late-game scoring. He had 7 points in the fourth quarter against the Magic, and through four games Noah actually is the team’s leading scorer at 16 points per game.
Gone are the days when Noah would grab an offensive rebound late in the game and desperately look to get rid of the ball. He drained a couple of jumpers Tuesday and finished a driving hook shot.
“It just depends on the situation,” Noah said. “I’m comfortable passing it, and I just feel more comfortable offensively.”
While Derrick Rose, the Bulls’ most reliable fourth-quarter scorer, recovers from knee surgery, there isn’t any single player who figures to handle the late-game scoring load. And the Bulls’ 3-point shooting has been awful so far (26.2 percent), which increases the need for Thibodeau to be creative with lineups.
“The thing I do like about our team is we have a lot of versatility,” he added. “We have guys that defend and play multiple positions. So I think that’s a plus. We’re going to use whatever is to our advantage.”
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