LOS ANGELES -- Tom Thibodeau entered Staples Center on Sunday morning looking like he always does -- like a man on a mission. The veteran coach confidently walked into the hallway and toward the visitor's locker room wearing a suit and rolling a small suitcase behind him. The man who loves his work, and loves a challenge, had plenty of both staring him in the way considering his Chicago Bulls were about to play without Derrick Rose yet again, and they were going to do so against a talented Los Angeles Clippers squad. As Thibodeau strode toward his next stop, a small security guard tried to stand in his way and asked to see a credential.
"I'm the coach," Thibodeau said as he kept going right past the notoriously stringent Staples Center security team. "I don't have a credential."
That was the highlight of Thibodeau's day. It all went downhill from there.
A few hours later, after his team had been embarrassed by the Clippers in the form of a 39-point defeat, Thibodeau tried to remain positive. He tried to remind his team that everything would be OK without Rose again -- only the players' faces and actions told a different story. The Bulls looked and played like an emotionally beaten-down group on Sunday, and even Thibodeau, despite all his bravado, knows it.
"I think we're all capable of doing better," he said. "This isn't on one player or two players. This is on me. It starts with me, and that's where the blame should be."
Thibodeau's sentiment is heartfelt, but reality tells a different story. The Bulls simply can't overcome the loss of Rose again. Sunday's game served as an example of what is to come over the next few weeks and months. There are only so many times a coach and a team can go to an emotional well. The Bulls played well last season because of the preparation they put in before the season without Rose. They knew he wasn't coming back for a long time, and they knew they had to rely on each other to figure out a solution.
This time, they didn't have that luxury. Rose's latest injury will be even more jarring to this season's team because they don't have the depth to sustain his loss. Last season's Bulls team was built to win without Rose; this season's squad was built to win around him. That's why it's so hard for his teammates to come to grips with the fact he is likely going to miss a long stretch of time.
"It's more [like] your little brother being hurt," Bulls forward Luol Deng said of Rose's absence. "I think that's [why] everyone's head's down. It's not so much that we don't believe in each other, and we're going to fight. It's just that's a good kid, and he worked so hard. And we've seen him work hard and be the first one to practice every day and [the] last one to leave and encouraging everybody. Just coming back and making everyone believe that we got a chance to do something special, and when he took a hit like that, it's hard. Even the people that don't know him had a hard time hearing that. And the people that know him just know how much work he put into it."
Thibodeau can say all he wants that the Bulls have "more than enough to win with" -- as he did again before Sunday's game -- but that's just not the case. The Bulls bench is weaker than it's been since Thibodeau landed in Chicago, and the team's spirit, which had been so strong in recent years, appears to be more fractured than ever due to the latest news about its superstar.
"We've done it before," Thibodeau said almost defiantly after the game of being without Rose. "This is Year No. 3 now, so we've got experience doing it. We got to get the fight. That's the first part of it. The determination and the fight and the will, which we can. The core of the team in there is the same core we had last year."
The core might be the same, but its heart is broken.
The players in Thibodeau's locker room know that, without Rose, they have no chance to win a championship. No matter how hard they play and no matter how hard they fight, they will not be able to get to where they wanted to get to this season. They are trying to put on a brave face with regard to this news, but their play makes it easy to see through all the tough talk.
"All we have is each other," Thibodeau said. "And we got to lift each other up. Just be ready. I don't want them changing routine. Know your opponent well, have great concentration; I think this team has already shown they have the capability of being a great defensive team, so I expect that. That wasn't reliant on one person; that's reliant on everybody doing their job. That's the way we have to play, and that's the way we're going to play."
That's what he wants his team believing every time it takes the floor. The mantra is in place -- it's just that the talent is not.
"He wrote it down on the chalkboard. He wrote down what we needed to do," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "He basically said, 'It doesn't matter what the outside world says.' He said we've been through a lot, we've achieved a lot. Even when our backs are against the wall, we got to just focus on striving towards greatness. Nobody's going to give us a shot. We're going to get hit. We got to keep going. That's what happens in life. You're going to have roller-coasters, bumps in the road. Even after your career's over, you're going to have bumps in the road. You just got to keep fighting, and that's what we're going to do. We've been in this situation before. Just keep fighting."
As the Bulls learned on Sunday, and will continue to learn over the course of another lost season, sometimes, fighting just isn't enough.