NEW YORK -- There was never a doubt in Tom Thibodeau's mind that his Chicago Bulls would win Game 7.
As the veteran coach hobbled out of the John Jay Gymnasium after Saturday morning he looked over and said, "I hope you packed for six days."
That's the same message he imparted to his team. Thibodeau's maniacal drive to succeed draws chuckles from fans sometimes, but it's more than just a mantra for the coach who worked his way up the NBA totem pole for over two decades as an assistant.
Thibodeau's desire and his refusal to use injuries or illnesses as an excuses continue to rub off on his team. The rest of the basketball world scoffed at Thibodeau's words over the past few days, when he uttered his standard line that the Bulls had "more than enough to win with," despite the fact they were playing without Luol Deng (illness), Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Derrick Rose (knee). But if people were still doubting that Thibodeau has the ability to squeeze the maximum out of his roster, let this 99-93 win over the Brooklyn Nets on the playoff stage serve as a guide.
With Thibodeau on the sidelines and a roster full of players who buy into his message, anything is possible. Thibodeau proved that again in a major way Saturday, earning the defining win of his Chicago tenure in the process.
"Our team has the belief that we can win every night," Thibodeau said after the game.
They have that belief because Thibodeau has instilled it in them. They have that belief because they have players like Joakim Noah, who refuse to accept anything less than a victory in the toughest of setting. The Bulls have that belief because of the countless hours they spend in the gym together. Thibodeau has created a culture of winning with the Bulls that almost every other team in the league envies. They trust that nobody will be able to outwork them on any given night because Thibodeau forces them to work harder than everyone else. No matter who gets hurt, the Bulls still believe they can win because they've prepared for every possible situation.
"Each guy brings (something) to the table," Bulls guard Nate Robinson said. "Jimmy (Butler) brings something different, everybody brings something different. It's like we're all bringing a different kind of plate to dinner and we have a feast. And that's how we go out there and play."
The Bulls played like a team possessed Saturday night. They fed off the doubt. They thrived on the biggest of stages. To Thibodeau and his team, this was a test that they had to pass. They knew that many had already counted them out and they loved it. They wanted to prove to the world, and again to themselves, that they could find a way to win when they weren't supposed to. They wanted to prove that heart and hustle can be victorious over talent in some cases -- and they did.
"We've had that (mantra) since I got here in Chicago, man," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said of the "more than enough" refrain. "You go in the locker room you see a big sign above our locker room that says 'No excuses.' We take that wholeheartedly since I've been here. Didn't matter who was out -- we've had guys that stepped up. Take your hat off to guys like Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed and Taj Gibson because they gave us a huge lift coming off that bench."
Most of all, take your hat off to Thibodeau. While Noah will get the majority of headlines, and deservedly so after a passion-filled 24-point, 14-rebound, six-block performance, Thibodeau should get a huge amount of credit as well. He got his team to buy into a dream that didn't seem attainable. He worked his players all year for this moment and it paid off. As usual, Thibodeau doesn't look at it that way. He feels like this is just the beginning of a long ride in the postseason.
"We're not satisfied because we feel like there's still a lot to accomplish," he said. "You begin the season with the end in mind knowing that you're going to be going through a lot of different things and you have to have the perseverance and mental toughness to get through a lot of tough things. And this was one of those things. We lost some guys along the way, they had home court. … We took a big punch in Game 1 and we kept fighting back and that's been the story of the season."
That's not just a tired cliché for Thibodeau and his team -- it's a way of life.