Among the more interesting story lines to come out of last night's 120-112 Chicago Bulls loss to the New York Knicks was head coach Tom Thibodeau's decision not to put starters Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng back out on the floor when the clock had wound down to the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter. It was a choice that gave fans one of the more dramatic moments of the 2010-11 season thus far as United Center attendees broke out in a rousing "We want Rose!" chant.
But Coach T did not acquiesce. Rose, Noah and Deng remained bench bound as the final seconds ticked away and the Knicks' sick shooting numbers (16 of 24 from behind the arc) won the day. Thibodeau's choice set many fans and critics off. This was a team that had just staged an amazing comeback a few nights before -- Monday's 110-98 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Why not go for it?
There are a couple of explanations one could explore. First, and most obviously, is Coach T's own stated reasoning. After the game, he told reporters:
We had gone with the starters a little longer to start the second half. When we got down 15 is when I subbed them. The second unit, I thought, fought hard to close [the gap]. I wanted to see what they could get out of it. The way the Knicks' guards were shooting, I thought the energy to get out to the line was what we needed.
So he was going with the "playing the hot hand" and "need for speed" excuse. Fair enough, though hearing (well, reading) him say "I wanted to see what they could get out of it," is a little off-putting. This wasn't an exhibition game and, if the Bulls want a reasonable chance to compete this year, they need to win the winnable games and not get too caught up in developing their secondary players (assuming that's what Thibodeau meant).
Be that as it may, another explanation for the benching is a little more intriguing: It was straight-up punishment for failing to contain the Knicks' shooters. Coach T was hired largely for his "defense first" approach, and the D earned a flat F if this game. Thibodeau may have been sending a message to his young starters that they must lead with their D and score points. It can't be one or the other.
On the bright side, both Deng and Noah seemed to take the benching (real or imagined) in stride. Deng has been quoted as saying, "It’s fine," The group that came in did a better job than us and coach had all the right to keep them in." And Noah took full responsibility, saying, "Our game plan was to make them shoot tough 2-point shots, and we couldn’t get them off that line ... we messed [the game plan] up as players."
Derrick Rose's reaction may serve to fuel the "punishment" theorists, however. According to a report this morning on WSCR 670 The Score, he left the United Center without speaking to reporters -- an uncharacteristic move for the typically quiet-spoken but amicable young star.
All in all, last night's game may have been the most acute growing pain yet in the team's effort to develop under Tom Thibodeau's coaching style and philosophy. Fortunately, as Noah himself mentioned after the loss, the Bulls have a chance to put this particular failure behind them and come out shooting -- and stopping -- against the Boston Celtics tonight.