Behind the Box Score, where Tom Thibodeau’s will found a way for Chicago to prevail

Joakim Noah left everything on the court in Game 2 (Getty Images)

Chicago 90, Brooklyn 82; series tied, 1-1

In his column from Brooklyn on Tuesday, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski called Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau “the rarest commodity in the NBA: an indisputable difference-maker on the bench.” That description absolutely cannot be countered by any rational NBA follower, and those who have read me for the last few seasons are no doubt familiar with my biggest gripe about someone who might be the best coach in the NBA — that he is symptomatic of a Chicago Bulls culture that takes advantage of players who want to play when they shouldn’t.

Thibodeau, seen as intractable in this regard for years, seems to be learning from this. He’s showed genuine concern for Joakim Noah over the last few weeks, keeping him away from live action after Noah looked pained and out of step (despite good stats) during an attempted comeback with a week and a half left in the season. And though Noah was given a minute restriction in Game 1, he was on the court far too long in Chicago’s blowout loss, obviously hurt.

Heading into Game 2, Thibodeau promised a 20- to 25-minute cap for Noah. Not only did Thibodeau deliver on his word, he constructed a masterful performance from a Bulls team that refused to take a single possession off on either end of the ball. Yes, even the ones Nate Robinson used up.

It was a brilliant effort, as Thibodeau had his players working to the point of perfection. And because Chicago has a limited roster, with Noah only playing 25 minutes in the win, “the point of perfection” only leads to an eight-point win road over the Brooklyn Nets. This is the hand that Thibodeau has been dealt, and he’s done more with it than any other coach in the NBA could. You heard me. Gregg Popovich included. Roll over Erik Spoelstra, tell George Karl the news.

Kirk Hinrich’s individual defense was fantastic, but he had help from all comers as the Bulls made a point to treat Reggie Evans and (sadly) Gerald Wallace as the lacking offensive players that they are. Noah was burned quite a few times on the perimeter by Brook Lopez (21 points, five rebounds), as Joakim just can’t close out the way he used to, but by the fourth quarter (and after a long rest provided by coach Thibs) Noah played exquisite defense on the Nets' cutters and penetrators. Entering a two-possession game midway through the fourth quarter, Joakim made a series of hustle plays on offense and shot-altering plays on defense to secure the Chicago win.

Led by Thibodeau’s exacting brilliance, it was typical. No possession was wasted.

The Nets shouldn’t be too shaken up. Chicago still has to rely on low-percentage shots and Noah overcoming significant pain just to be in the game, and Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo did well to experiment with lineups featuring C.J. Watson (who is absolutely locked in while playing against his former team) and Andray Blatche to provide spacing down the stretch. It’s a relatively quick turnaround between Game 2 and 3 (which is on Thursday), and Carlesimo probably won’t mess with his starting lineup, but his willingness to adapt in what was a 25-point fourth quarter for Brooklyn is a good sign.

The Bulls don’t rely on good signs. They move the ball, set screens, and play withering defense. Somebody prepped them to pay attention to each of the 2,880 seconds in this Game 2, though, and as a result Thibodeau and Noah should share this particular game ball. Noah will need something to stretch his pained foot on, and coach Thibs will probably need something to use as a pillow the next time he has to fall asleep in his office after staying up too late watching game film.

***

Clipper family, after the win (Getty Images)

Los Angeles Clippers 93, Memphis 91; Los Angeles leads the series, 2-0

The Los Angeles Clippers have now won 11 of their last 16 games against the Memphis Grizzlies, even though most of the contests between the two have turned into exhilarating, nail-biting affairs. Games that could have gone either way. Battles that keep us coming back. Chris Paul, usually winning out.

Paul hit the game-winner on Monday night, but despite that conquest and Los Angeles’ overall record, these teams are just inches apart. Had the Grizzlies prevailed in Los Angeles and grabbed home-court advantage in this series, the Clippers likely would have stolen it right back while taking advantage of an increasingly confident Blake Griffin and Paul’s ability to wrest wins out of the malaise, and in spite of a lacking Clipper coach in Vinny Del Negro.

Del Negro was the man who decided to take Eric Bledsoe off the court midway through the fourth quarter, allowing Mike Conley (who finished with a game-high 28 points) to light up Paul defensively. Watch the tape — Conley wasn’t even looking at the rim with Bledsoe (eight points and four rebounds in just 13 minutes) guarding him, and yet for some reason Vinny decided to put Chauncey Billups (2 for 8 shooting in just under 23 minutes) back in the game because … he was really good in the 2004 NBA Finals?

This misstep, Lamar Odom’s presence on the court, and a few kind non-calls allowed a spirited Grizzlies team to make a game of it. Conley was potent and daring in attacking Paul, while CP3 had to go it alone on the other end just to keep Memphis from grabbing the game. By now, you’ve seen his game-winner. Kindly understand just how desperate it was, necessary in the Clippers’ lacking half-court offense in the fourth quarter.

Little things pushed this game either way. Los Angeles did well to attack the offensive glass in the first half, and Memphis responded with improved defensive rebounding and its own sound work on the offensive glass in the second half. The Grizzlies missed 11 free throws, all killers, while the Clippers seem completely incapable of responding to defensive pressure with a half-court wrinkle spent and meant to surprise the opponent. Paul might be this game’s best fourth-quarter performer, but if it takes a performance like this each time out, these Clippers aren’t long for spring.

(Did I sub-tweet Vinny Del Negro enough in that last paragraph?)

This isn’t to say the Clippers are in trouble. They rode Bledsoe and a small lineup to what turned into a one-sided win on Saturday evening, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest the possibility of a four-game sweep for Los Angeles with the final two games coming down to the final two minutes. That’s how close these teams are: Memphis could pull the same close-game sweep and win this in six.

In the long run, though, this has to change. The bailout was exciting, but the Clippers have to find a way to maximize the significant offensive potential that this roster already has in place. Relying on Bledsoe’s improvisations away from the ball might be a good start. Too bad VDN only saw fit to play him 13 minutes in the win.

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