For Bulls, 'the moment of truth is coming'

"We have to understand what goes into winning," Tom Thibodeau said. "As they say, 'The battle is won before it's fought.' That comes from preparation. Without proper preparation, it is going to show." AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- Taj Gibson and his teammates have been around Tom Thibodeau long enough to know that the veteran coach couldn't care less about an 8-0 record in the preseason.

Thibodeau cares only about one thing. There's only one thing in his basketball life that will truly make the hard-charging coach happy.

"A championship," Gibson said after the Chicago Bulls’ 94-89 win over the Denver Nuggets. "A championship. One word: championship."

In the grand scheme of things, Friday night's win means nothing. Gibson and his teammates weren't as excited as they were relieved the preseason was over so they could focus all their attention on the regular season and Tuesday’s opener against the Miami Heat.

Thibodeau has programmed his players to be like him, to think like him, so that's why the only real victory for the Bulls on this night was the fact it brought them a day closer to accomplishing their ultimate goal -- hoisting the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy at season’s end.

"With the players we have and the different types of players we have, that's on his mind all day," Gibson said of his coach. "Every day we talk. There's always inspirational quotes, previous players' quotes, champions like Ali; everybody that ever won something or did something big in their life. We just [read] their quotes.

“We just take it; every day, we're real focused. We really think about the game. We really think about just winning."

That's why Thibodeau's message at the end of this game shouldn't come as any surprise. He isn't going to be satisfied until the Bulls finish what they started.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Thibodeau said. "The preseason tells you where your team stands. We did some things OK and other things not so well. But, regardless, the moment of truth is coming. We have to put hard work into it and be ready."

The good news for the Bulls is that they put a lot of work in during the preseason. But the most important aspect of that work is that Derrick Rose was a part of all of it.

This preseason will be defined by the fact that Rose, after missing almost a year and a half while recovering from knee surgery, participated in all but one game and dominated. He looked and sounded like his old self -- driving to the rim and blowing by opponents. He acknowledged how meaningful his presence was for his own confidence and that of his teammates.

"It was important," Rose said. "I'm happy that we played this many games. And it gave me time to really shake some of the rust off. Just playing with my teammates, getting used to playing with them, knowing where they're going to be on the floor and having that communication with them.

"I think it's going to help me become a better player."

Rose's presence gives his teammates the confidence they can accomplish Thibodeau's goal. While the rest of the basketball world may be stunned by his early success after such a long time away from the game, nobody within the Bulls locker room, including Rose himself, is surprised by how successful he's been up to this point.

"I bet I surprised a lot of people," Rose said. "But at the same time, I know how hard I worked in the offseason just trying to get back on the court. My hard work is paying off, where I'm still not in my groove yet and I'm still able to go out there and control the game a little bit. So I guess when I get back to my groove, it's really going to be scary."

When the Bulls get back to full health is when they might be most scary. They must focus on getting Joakim Noah (groin) and Kirk Hinrich (shoulder) back on the floor.

Thibodeau must also remember just how fragile Rose's talent can be. That was on full display late Friday night as Rose walked gingerly toward the locker room door wearing a sleeve on his left leg.

The grind of an NBA season is tough on everyone, but the Bulls can't afford to lose Rose or Noah for an extended period of time if they want to win a title. It will be up to Thibodeau to know when to push and pull his team this season.

"We have to be ready to play," Thibodeau said. "We have to understand what goes into winning. As they say, 'The battle is won before it's fought.' That comes from preparation. Without proper preparation, it is going to show. We have to be mentally, physically and emotionally ready."

Physically, the Bulls are still trying to get right; they haven't yet had all five starters healthy, but emotionally, it appears as if everyone in that locker room knows what's at stake this season. The Bulls feel as if it is their time, and they know that anything less than a championship this season will seem like a failure.

"I got a real good feeling about this year for some reason," Gibson said. "I've never seen so many guys just stay late hours in the gym -- really focus, really put their heart and soul into this game -- and everybody can feel it. We really work hard every day.

“[We have] a lot of doubters, but we just got to take one game at a time. This season is going to be a lot of ups and downs, but we're a unit. We've been together for a long time now, so we just got to keep pushing."