By Mike Grenier
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on Tom Thibodeau, the former Salem State College player and men's basketball coach who was recently hired as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
Tom Thibodeau has already moved on to the next phase of his coaching career.
For the first time in his 21 years in the NBA, he won't be on the passenger side, giving advice to the driver. Thibodeau himself is now in the driver's seat as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and he can hardly wait to see how it unfolds with a team that won six championships when Michael Jordan was in his prime in the 1990s.
"I like my team," said Thibodeau. "We've still got some pieces to add so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I like the way it's coming together."
Until the new season starts, however, Thibodeau, will occasionally replay in his mind this season's NBA Finals. The 52-year-old, who spent the last three years with the Celtics as Doc Rivers' primary assistant, will think back to how things might have turned out differently if center Kendrick Perkins had been available for Game 7 against the Lakers.
That's no knock on the Lakers, who overcame a 3-2 deficit to win the best-of-seven series. But the Celts were a different team on defense without Perkins, who went down with a knee injury when the series shifted back to LA for Game 6.
"It was a great series against the Lakers — just fabulous," said Thibodeau, the former Salem State College coach and player. "Good shots were hard to come by because the defense by both teams was at such a high level.
"To me, the biggest (missing) piece was Kendrick's rebounding in Game 7. The Lakers have great length and know to how to use it to their advantage. But I think Kendrick is the most underrated player in the league in terms of what he meant to our defense."
As it turned out, the Celtics saw a 13-point second half lead evaporate in their 83-79 Game 7 loss. The Lakers, who shot poorly for much of the game, clobbered the Celts on the boards, 53-40, and had a massive advantage in free throw attempts, 37-17.
"We missed Kendrick's rebounding and toughness," said Thibodeau.
In the heat of the moment following Game 7, some Celtic fans gave up on veteran guard Ray Allen, who shot 3-for-14. If only Allen had made a couple of more shots, they said, the Celtics would've coasted home with their 18th NBA championship. Naturally, if the Lakers had lost, LA fans and media would've been all over superstar Kobe Bryant, who shot just 6-for-24 from the field, including 0-for-6 from three-point land. And guess who was guarding Bryant in the decisive game?
"Ray's defense against Kobe was overlooked (because of the outcome)," said Thibodeau. "That whole series was such a physical grind. Both teams had guys who were banged up and exhausted. It was all about who had the most will and fight.
"When I look back at the entire season, Ray Allen had a great year. At this stage of his career, he still has a lot to offer. He didn't shoot well for a few games against the Lakers, but he shot well all season."
Achieving maximum potential
With Thibodeau having an insider's perspective of the team's dynamics for three years, it was interesting to get his thoughts on Kevin Garnett and his alpha personality, and how the Big Ticket asserted himself with fellow Boston stars like Paul Pierce and Allen on the same team.
"All the guys have egos," said Thibodeau, "but they were able to set aside their personal egos. It became a team ego. Kevin and those guys (referring to Allen and Pierce), they were great in the locker room. They set the tone and were key in the development of guys like Kendrick and Rajon (Rondo) and (Big Baby) Davis, and they were perfect for the other role players like Eddie House, P.J. (Brown), Leon (Powe) and everybody else.
"Back in (the championship year of 2008) when we first had (Garnett, Allen and Pierce) together, they were so committed to winning right from the start. They sacrificed their offense and committed to being a great defensive team, and they showed leadership all the way. It was a shared vision. From a coaching standpoint, I think you measure a team's success according to whether a team has achieved its maximum potential. We got the most out of the guys that year."
Thibodeau is a huge fan of Rondo's game. He's taken tremendous pleasure in watching the young point guard develop into an upper tier player.
"Rajon is very clever," said Thibodeau. "He's a tremendous passer, yet he has all the shots. He penetrates so well, even in traffic, that sometimes you ask yourself, 'How did he get through there?' He's always in rhythm and, to be honest, he's a pass-first point guard. He's extremely smart, a student of the game. Each year that I was in Boston, Rajon got significantly better."
'True to yourself'
Thibodeau can't help but think that he was extremely close to winning two other NBA titles as an assistant. In addition to this past year's Celtics, he felt the 1999 New York Knicks club he was a coach for could've gone the distance. The Knicks have become the league's laughingstock in recent years, but back then they had the right stuff.
"We lost to a great San Antonio team, but (legendary center Patrick) Ewing was injured for us," recalled Thibodeau. "That one has never sat well with me. It was a situation where we just felt shorthanded going into (the Finals). You only get so many opportunities to win a title, so it's tough when it doesn't happen."
Thibodeau said he had a "wonderful run" with the Knicks under head coach Jeff Van Gundy from 1996-2003. He also valued the three seasons he just wrapped up with the Celtics' Rivers.
"Doc is the perfect coach for that team," said Thibodeau. "What you see is what you get with Doc. He is direct and honest, and he really knows how to manage people. He's great in handling problems. I think his biggest asset is that he doesn't overreact to anything. He's got the proper touch."
When he learned that Thibodeau had taken the Bulls head coaching post, Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn lauded the coach's passion for his job.
At the same time, Heinsohn suggested that Thibodeau might have to "lighten up a little bit. When you're a head coach these days, you can't be a drill sergeant. You sort of have to be a second lieutenant," said Heinsohn.
Thibodeau, who has had a close relationship with Heinsohn, won't ignore that kind of advice. But whether he becomes a little less intense remains to be seen.
"Since it comes from Tommy, I have to (respect) what he says," said Thibodeau. "He's been such a great resource for me with the Celtics. I could bounce things off him; talk to him about anything. But in the end, I think you have to be true to yourself."