Tom Thibodeau said his players quit. Ka-boom.
The Bulls coach didn’t use the word “quit.’’ After a loss to Houston at home, he said his players “let go of the rope.’’
But that’s the same thing. That’s quitting. That’s the most brutal thing a coach can say about his players.
That’s also the most dangerous thing a coach can say about his players.
As if this season wasn’t messy enough. Makes you wonder if the win-at-all-costs Thibodeau talked his way into a problem with a roster of players who previously trusted him implicitly.
Thibodeau has been blunt since he came to the Bulls. He’s a coach. He’s in the results business. Results are as blunt as win or lose. The Bulls have have lost the last two games. They got blown out in Oklahoma City against a great team and choked at home against a playoff-bubble team.
The Bulls had a big lead against Houston and then lost it. They “let go of the rope,’’ their coach said, and then players got blindsided in the postgame locker room with questions about their coach’s saying they quit.
Think a lot of players appreciated that kind of lovely parting gift? Think a lot of players will remember it?
Thibodeau’s charge seems harsh given their record, the best in the conference. It seems harsh given the absence of reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the hologram that has been Richard Hamilton, which is your starting backcourt in a previous life. It seems harsh given that games remain in a ridiculous regular season.
Perhaps we are seeing cracks in the Rose patch job. You can only fake it so long in a season so short. Everything becomes more acute, good or bad.
Are the Rose-less Bulls good enough to beat the Rockets? Yeah. Did the Rose-less Bulls grow numb to the demand of being the Rose-less Bulls? Sure looked like it the last two games.
Thibodeau pointed to “turnover, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers,’’ and he’s right. The Bulls committed 19 to Houston’s 8. But why so many turnovers? Hamilton was bad and everybody followed. In other words, no Rose and no place to hide it.
So, the coach suddenly claims the players quit?
I’ve never heard Thibodeau describe his team like that. Maybe the strain of being without Rose is getting to him, too. I’m not saying he’s becoming Captain Queeg and will suddenly obsess over strawberries, but Thibodeau’s words are surprising and dangerous enough that you have to wonder.
This is the first time I can recall anyone questioning the heart of these Bulls. That’s a tribute to the players and the coach. That’s a tribute to the players’ trust in the coach.
Now the coach said the players quit. You can imagine some players thinking, “All that we’ve done, and this is how we get it publicly?’’
All through this shorthanded struggle, Thibodeau offered coach-speak: “We have more than enough to win games.’’ “We need to protect the ball.’’ “We need to defend with more energy from the start.’’ All of that is true, by the way.
All of that is mostly what the Rose-less Bulls have done, as well. The Bulls had given Thibodeau strong efforts in an extended and painful shorthanded situation. He rewarded them by saying the worst thing a coach can say about players.
Thibodeau has always seemed to know his team. He has always said things and made moves based on that knowledge. This seems like a misstep. This sounds like his biggest risk.
It’s one thing to bench Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah in the fourth quarter of the Eastern Conference Final because they weren’t playing well. It’s another thing to say players dogged it.
Players can handle being told their defense isn’t good enough. That’s business. But they don’t like having their heart questioned. “Quitting’’ is an explosive charge because it’s personal. You want to guarantee losing a locker room? Start there.
Maybe Thibodeau is smarter still. Maybe Thibodeau is right and his players know it, so it won’t be an issue, and if saying they quit isn’t an issue, then nothing ever will be. Thibodeau will own their hearts and minds and bodies forever.
Or maybe he created one of the worst problems at one of the worst times.