ORLANDO, Fla -- Watching Sunday night's All-Star Game was like watching a pick-up game in an alternate Chicago Bulls universe.
Instead of racing up and down the floor with ferocity, Derrick Rose coasted for most of his 18 minutes of action, preferring to make easy passes and knock down the occasional wide open jumper. Instead of defending one of the numerous world-class players on the floor, Luol Deng actually sat on the bench for a vast majority of the game after falling on his wrist late in the first quarter. Deng, the guy who plays the role of Energizer bunny for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau during the regular season, ended up only playing six minutes in his first All-Star appearance.
Even stranger than watching those two players try to take their foot off the pedal, when it goes against everything they've stood for over the past few years in Chicago, was watching Thibodeau, the man who rarely, if ever, sits down during a game, plant himself on his cushy chair on the bench. Had it not been for the final, frantic minutes late in the fourth quarter, Thibodeau may not have moved at all. For a coach who thrives on being as prepared, as thorough and as intense as anyone in the league, both Deng and Rose knew that the veteran coach was having a hard time trying to stomach a game in which defense seemed to be a disease that both teams steered away from until the last three or four minutes.
"Oh my God," Deng said with a smile after the game. "I was feeling for him, man. I really was. I'm not a flashy kind of guy. I don't think he's an All-Star type of coach."
Deng meant that as a serious compliment. The essence of the All-Star Game goes against almost every principle Thibodeau stands for. He wants his players to always play hard and never give away a possession. For 44 minutes on Sunday night, that's pretty much all they did. Thibodeau's bunch actually gave up 88 points in the first half. A staggering amount when you consider that the Bulls don't usually give up 88 points two halves on most nights.
"I know it was definitely tough for him watching that game," Rose said. "But we got things together at the end."
Sure, the Eastern Conference team might have lost, and the ultra-competitive Thibodeau hates to lose, but his players were just glad he made it through the game without his head popping off in frustration. Rose said he didn't pay much attention to the fact that Thibodeau sat on the bench almost the entire night, but he knew his coach had to be dying on the inside.
"Thibs is very unusual as you know," Rose said. "But I'm happy that he really didn't drive himself crazy this weekend. I know that he's been looking at film probably, in his room, but around us he's been keeping it cool."
Deng noticed the new relaxed Thibodeau as well.
"He got through it," Deng said. "He got through it. I'm sure, you could see at the end we all wanted the win, but I'm sure for him, he's more happy than anyone to get back to tape and coaching the Bulls. The positive out of this is I think he's going to appreciate us even more."
Deng was laughing, but it was the truth.
In many ways, the All-Star Game might have been a good thing for Thibodeau. Not only did he actually get a chance to rest his guys (Rose and Deng) in a meaningless exhibition, he also might have gained even more of an appreciation for just how coachable, and keyed in on defense, his team is. They listen to him intently almost all the time and they do what he tells them to do. In a league full of players who aren't always that attentive, Thibodeau has built a program that players around the rest of the league respect.
On Monday, Thibodeau will be back in his element. He'll be back at practice and screaming at his guys to push even harder. But at least he was able to get the recognition, and possibly maybe even a little enjoyment, from all the hours of hard work he's poured in over the course of his career.
"It's a great game," Thibodeau said with a laugh, trying to explain how his team could give up so many points in the first half. "When you put that many great players on the floor, you're in a bind on almost every possession because if you over-commit to your help, you're going to have to give up a wide-open shot, and then you have a second shot, and often times the speed of the game -- you're caught, cross-matched, and you're giving up layups. So you have to figure that out ... but you know, both teams put big points up on the board, and usually that's the case with the All-Star Game.
That doesn't mean Thibodeau has to like it.