Last season, the Toronto Raptors ranked dead last in Defensive Rating, giving up a whopping 113.2 points per 100 possessions. From the looks of things, their D didn’t improve when Chris Bosh decided to take his talents to South Beach.
To wit: The Bulls assisted on 26 of their 39 field goals, scored 27 fast break points, earned 35 free throws, had 42 points in the paint, shot 50 percent as a team and finished with 110 points.
Players who enjoyed stat-padding nights included Derrick Rose (20 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal), Luol Deng (22 points, 7-for-13, 6 rebounds, 3 assists), James Johnson (13 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter), Brian Scalabrine (14 points on 6-for-7 shooting), C.J. Watson (12 points on, ugh, 3-for-13 shooting) and even the ancient Kurt Thomas (10 points on 5-for-6 shooting).
The bad news? Toronto assisted on 24 of their 38 field goals, scored 15 fast break points, earned 36 free throws, had 50 points in the paint, shot nearly 48 percent from the field and finished with 103 points. The Raptors also won the rebounding battle 45-36.
This wasn’t the Celtics or the Lakers. This was the Raptors…a team with a few above-average players at best. Not surprisingly, Coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t happy with his team’s defense. To say the least.
Said Thibs: “Transition, pick-and-roll defense, challenging shots, not protecting the paint, from A to Z, it just wasn’t there. I liked the way we played offensively a lot. We shared the ball, made good decisions and scored effectively. But if we’re just going to rely on our offense, we’re going to be in trouble.”
You’ve got to love this, right? That quote reads like something you’d expect a coach to say 10-20 games (or more) into the regular season. Speaking of which, Thibodeau burned a 20-second timeout less than four minutes into the game to read his team the riot act for a lackadaisical start. Clearly, this man is intense.
Said Luol Deng: “He expects a lot out of us. And we were letting him down.”
On that subject, Thibodeau also said: “I’m concerned about our rebounding, our rebounding is not good.”
In all fairness, the fact that Joakim Noah missed the game with flu-like symptoms and Carlos Boozer is still out with that broken hand probably explains the rebounding deficit. Not to make excuses, but they are, by the numbers, Chicago’s two best rebounders.
At any rate, the way Luol Deng tells it, “Defense First” has been a consistent and repetitive message from Thibodeau: “That’s coach. He expects excellence out of us and I’m glad that he does. It’s just going to make us all better and it’s going to make us better as a team.”
You know who Thibs reminds me of? Former Bulls coach (and current Bucks coach) Scott Skiles.
Like Thibodeau, Skiles was a demanding perfectionist. His bulldog’s intensity and absolute insistence on defense, hard work and hustle make the Bulls a much better team. However, his style wore on his players. A lot. By his fourth season in Chicago, many players had tuned him out and some even seemed to quit on him. Then Skiles got fired. On Christmas eve.
In the NBA, things rarely end well for taskmasters.
And although some people will tell you that today’s player is more self-centered than the old-schoolers, this isn’t a new thing. Back in the early 1980s, a former U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor named Bill Fitch coached the Boston Celtics to a 32-game turnaround and then won a league championship in only his second season with the team. Admittedly, having Larry Bird around helped, but so did Fitch’s demanding nature and attention to detail (he was one of the first NBA coaches to use video sessions).
Unfortunately, the coach’s dictatorial style got to his players. By the fourth year of the Fitch Regime, those players — Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in particular — staged a mini-revolt that culminated in an embarrassing playoff sweep by the Milwaukee Bucks. When a Larry Bird-led squad gets swept by a lesser opponent, you know there’ s a problem. Not surprisingly — and despite the fact that Bird was his biggest supporter — Fitch was canned.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that Thibodeau wants nothing but 100 percent effort from his team every single night. I liked that quality in Skiles, and I’m glad it’s back. But it’s something to think about down the road.
Right now, though, the Bulls need this. They do. The team has nine new players. Boozer is going to miss the team’s most challenging stretch of the season. Guys have ticky-tac injuries and need to learn their roles. Structure is an absolute necessity.
After all, these games are going to start counting soon.