Tom Thibodeau is a man whose life has been dedicated to basketball. He reportedly ended an engagement while in graduate school and justified his decision by telling his boss, “There’s no room in my life for a woman if I’m going to be a basketball coach.”
It is a devotion that would seem monastic if not for his demeanor, which is less one of contemplation than one of intensity. He does not rage but he does simmer, boiling over only occasionally – though the threat is always present. He has been an NBA coach for nearly half his life, spending two decades as an assistant, winning a title with the Celtics in 2008, before becoming a head coach. In his first stop, he remade the Bulls in his own image, forging a tenacious team with an indomitable defense.
Jimmy Butler was drafted by these Bulls in 2011, joining the team as an unheralded, late first-round selection. He did not get much playing time at first, but quickly proved himself to be one of the league’s best defenders before breaking out in his fourth season. Butler did originally blossom in the NBA under Thibodeau’s tutelage, winning Most Improved Player and making his first All-Star team during his final year as head coach of the Bulls. However, Tom Thibodeau did not make Jimmy Butler the player he is today. If Thibodeau, was in a sense, able to realize his own desires through Butler’s own competitiveness, then Butler himself found a kindred spirit in him as well – a coach that, rather than attempting to moderate his wildest impulses, shares the same ones.
After the Bulls and Thibodeau parted ways, he and Butler did briefly get the gang back together in Minnesota when the Timberwolves traded for him in 2017. Together, they led the Wolves to their first postseason appearance in 13 years. However, Butler was unimpressed by his teammates and wanted out. Thibodeau reportedly fought ownership’s mandate to trade Butler, but Jimmy nevertheless found himself in Philadelphia. After being separated from his truest surrogate once and then working to bring themselves together again, why would he want the reunion to end?
Now, nearly five years since they were last together in Minnesota, their current teams – Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks and Jimmy Butler’s Heat – will be facing one another in the Eastern Conference Semifinals beginning on Sunday. Thibodeau’s Knicks are less fully an extension of himself than his previous teams. They are hard-nosed and resilient, yes, but lack the tenacious defense that has defined so many of his squads. Instead, the Knicks have mostly succeeded on the backs of its third-ranked offense. The Bulls, even in the early 2010’s felt like a throwback to an earlier era. This year’s Knicks, meanwhile, have made concessions to the way the league has trended in the decade since then, ranking 8th in three-point attempts. Thibodeau employs a variety of shifty and crafty players whose defensive liabilities may have gotten them stuck on the bench if they’d played for him in years past. However, despite these changes, his manner is the same. The method may have shifted, but the intensity remains.
For the Heat, the gap between who they could potentially be at their best and who they have been in actuality has haunted them all season. Despite still featuring the same core that led the team to the Finals three years ago, the Heat struggled to make the postseason at all. And yet they look more like the stereotype of what a Thibodeau-led team should be than the team actually led by him. Their offense is anemic, their defense is stout, and their pace is glacial. Throughout the first round, they were able to rely on a bevy of overperforming white hot shooters and the individual heroics of Butler. If they are to advance, they will need those trends to repeat themselves and judging by Butler’s previous playoff performances, the latter one seems sure to.
By the time they came together, Thibodeau had already proven himself as a coach and Butler would have found his way to stardom with or without his help. Yet the two remain linked. Not only because of their overlapping histories, but because of their shared approaches. Though Thibodeau and Butler will find themselves on opposite sides in this series, they remain kindred souls. But while Butler is able to work on the court to win, achieving his ends in the all-consuming, uncompromising way that he desires, Thibodeau has to find surrogates who can perform the way he wants. In Butler, Thibodeau found perhaps his purest surrogate – a player who takes every element of the game seriously, one whose devotion to winning nears mania, one who has a hard time relating to or understanding anyone who approaches basketball differently.
Last year, after a game between the Heat and the Knicks that Miami won 115-100, Jimmy Butler said that Tom Thibodeau did not talk to him anymore. He smiled and said it was “because we be beating him all the time.” Even if there is a part of Butler that longs to reconnect with his erstwhile coach, with a Conference Finals berth on the line, I imagine he would like to give Thibodeau reason to avoid talking to him a little bit longer.