Commentary

Thibodeau not done in Boston yet

Celtics' defensive guru still must figure out how to slow potent Lakers

Updated: June 5, 2010, 11:49 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Boston Celtics' defense in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers was, in the words of coach Doc Rivers, "horrible." Less than 48 hours after that game, Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics' top assistant and acknowledged defensive guru, accepted an offer to coach the Chicago Bulls.

The official announcement won't come until after the NBA Finals, but multiple sources and ESPN Chicago have reported that Thibodeau has agreed to replace Vinny Del Negro. Rivers on Saturday said he would not let the situation distract his team, then added, "He deserves the job. I think he's the best candidate out there. I've said that for three years now. So let's hope it's true."

Tom Thibodeau
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillTom Thibodeau, reportedly the future head coach of the Bulls, talks with Kevin Garnett about how to stop Pau Gasol and the Lakers.

It will be the first head coaching job for Thibodeau. And Rivers said Thibodeau's departure will not have any impact on whether he decides to return for another season with the Celtics.

Thibodeau hasn't been available to speak about his new position or his current one, for that matter. Rivers prohibits his assistant coaches from speaking to the media. But knowing the workaholic Thibodeau, he more than likely has ensconced himself in front of a computer screen these last 48 hours trying to devise a way to stop Kobe, Pau and the rest of the Lakers.

And, judging by his track record, he will come up with something. The Bulls targeted him because of an impressive body of work over two decades in the NBA, where designing defenses has been Thibodeau's life mission. According to those he works with, he doesn't do much of anything else.

"It'll be interesting for him as a head coach because you've got to give some of those hours away,'' Ray Allen said. "You can't just go full steam like that all the time because you have to get rest and make sure that you don't [overload] yourself with too much work."

Shelden Williams agreed: "Sometimes he overloads us with so much stuff we have to stop him."

It's no coincidence that Thibodeau's teams generally end up being among the top defensive units in the league. Prior to 2007, when he came to Boston and implemented the NBA's best defense that season (helped by a healthy Kevin Garnett), he was Jeff Van Gundy's top lieutenant in Houston. The Rockets, helped by the presence of Yao Ming, also had one of the league's top defenses.

Thibodeau's defense helped stifle the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. But the 2010 Lakers overran the helpless Celtics in Game 1, scoring 102 points and shooting 48.7 percent from the field. Those are unacceptable numbers in Thibodeau's world. As Paul Pierce noted after the Game 1 loss, "I felt like all night we pretty much let them run what they wanted to run, there was no resistance. I looked up and we gave up 100 points. I haven't seen that in a while. We've got our work cut out for us."

You have to think Thibodeau hasn't seen the sun in the last 48 hours, except for the times the Celtics have gone to practice. He is renowned for spending hours in the film room and after a painful defeat like Game 1, one that struck at the heart of what he does, he is on the spot for Game 2. As Garnett noted Saturday, "He does it with a passion."

Much of what Thibodeau and the Celtics face is obvious and correctable. They were shockingly unenergetic in Game 1, allowing the Lakers to abuse them inside and out. Garnett has been flagellating himself for the last two days after allowing Pau Gasol to stomp all over him.

"We've got to get stops,'' Rivers said, responding to a question on how Rajon Rondo can get untracked. "Rondo is not going to get going if we don't get stops. Our offense is directly connected to our defense. Every team's is for the most part if you want to run. If we're going to take the ball out of bounds, if they're going to shoot free throws, if they're going to get second shots, Rondo is not going to be in the open court. If we can get multiple stops, we can get multiple runs. So we've got to get stops."

And it falls on Thibodeau to devise the schemes and for the players to execute them. Rivers reminded everyone Saturday that energy and effort are not enough. There's a third "e" and that is execution.

"We've told our guys for years now, the "I'm playing hard, Coach," line does not work here. You've got to play hard and smart,'' Rivers said.

The Celtics did neither in Game 1. They understand they have to do both in Game 2. In the end, it will come down to what it always has come down to with this particular group: the ability to defend. And that's where Thibodeau comes into play.

"I think his influence defensively on this team has been major in getting us to the point we're at now,'' Pierce said. "He can do anything, but that's just his role."

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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