PHOENIX -- Tom Thibodeau knows the Chicago Bulls can play much better than they did Wednesday night.
He knows they can execute better and expects them to play much better defensively late in games. He knows they have a lot of improvement left to make this season. And he understands that his team was lucky to sneak away with a 112-106 overtime victory against the Phoenix Suns, especially after blowing an 18-point lead late in the second half.
But even Thibodeau, the hard-charging taskmaster, can appreciate a victory on the road when his team doesn't play every second the way they're supposed to. That's why he wore the look of relief as he walked out of his team's happy locker room.
"I think they showed a lot of toughness," Thibodeau said. "In the end, you just got to find a way to win. Whatever's necessary, that's what you have to do and I thought we did that tonight."
For as many flaws as the Bulls have shown this season, and there are plenty of them, they deserve credit for not completely rolling over after giving up such a huge lead late. They did that by staying true to Thibodeau's principles.
After playing poor defense down the stretch and giving up plenty of the second-chance points that Thibodeau detests, the Bulls' players came to the bench after regulation and did something the veteran coach had to be proud of: They stayed calm.
"We didn't lose our poise," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "That's the good thing about the group of guys we have. We've seen a lot of stuff over the last three years, so even though we got to overtime I thought we did a great job of moving the ball around. We got Rip [Hamilton] some shots, we got Lu [Deng] some shots, we got Joakim [Noah] some shots, I got a couple shots, offensive rebounds, different things. That's how we're going to win. We don't have Derrick [Rose] so we’ve got to find different ways to win."
Boozer's point and his play were spot on Wednesday night. The much-maligned forward scored 28 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. But what was even more obvious is that he and his teammates didn't panic when things got bad and the game went into overtime. Without Rose on the floor, the Bulls still found a way to win a close game, something that has given them trouble several times already this season.
"When a team makes a run, you can't get down on yourself," Hamilton said. "You can't get down on your teammates. You've just got to look everybody in the eye and be like, 'Hey, it's OK.' They're a team that makes runs but we got to get back to what we started the game doing, and that's what I told them: Defending. We defended and we shared the ball."
It was as if all the mistakes the Bulls made in the final 12 minutes of regulation had been washed away. They came into overtime with a different mind-set and corrected their mistakes.
"They brought in guys that were really trying to take us out of our spots," Hamilton continued. "Take us out of our offense, and we kind of allowed that to affect us. So in overtime we were just like, "Slow down, everybody get their space. If they try to play defense and try to play overaggressive, the guy who gets the ball, try to make a play for somebody else, and that's what happened."
The players understand and admit they are still struggling to find a rhythm, especially offensively. But if the Bulls are going to win games this season, it's going to start on the defensive end and Thibodeau knows it. That's the point he has been trying to make all along, and that's the one his players took to heart to close the game out in the last five minutes.
"I thought we solidified our defense," Thibodeau said. "I thought we recognized the way the game was being called. I think you also have to adjust; if the game is being called that way then you've got to make the adjustment. I thought there was physical play inside, and we should enjoy that. It's a good part of the game."
Thibodeau knows his team still has flaws, but he's definitely going to enjoy this one. Some teams find a way to lose these kinds of games. Thibodeau's team found a way to win.