Wolves’ Taj Gibson explains longtime coach Tom Thibodeau, the man and the myth
The Minnesota big man says his "crazy at times" coach has "calmed down so much"
NEW YORK -- On Christmas Day in 2013, Tom Thibodeau's father died at the age of 83 in New Britain, Connecticut. It was a Wednesday. Thibodeau coached the Chicago Bulls to a win in Brooklyn that day, then traveled to his hometown.
That Friday, Thibodeau ran the Bulls' practice at home. That Saturday, he coached them in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. He missed their Monday shootaround in Memphis to attend the funeral in New Britain, but made it to FedExForum that night for their win over the Grizzlies.
"I remember like it was yesterday, I remember when his dad died," Minnesota Timberwolves big man Taj Gibson, an ex-Bull, told CBS Sports. "We had just won a basketball game. I remember his reaction and everything. We were all a part of that. We were there for him. I think that brought us a little bit closer."
Gibson spent five years playing for Thibodeau in Chicago and reunited with him in Minnesota in free agency last summer. At the beginning of their professional relationship, the two barely spoke to each other -- Gibson was only a second-year player when Thibodeau arrived. Having been through nine playoff series and all sorts of ups and downs together, that is not the case anymore.
"It's been a lot different, in the fact that I'm a veteran, more of an older veteran now, so I'm kind of like the guy that he expects a lot out of," Gibson said. "But he doesn't really yell at me as much anymore, and I'm enjoying it."
Gibson said this a week ago after a 108-104 win in Madison Square Garden, the arena Thibodeau called home as an assistant coach from 1996 to 2004. Gibson, a Brooklyn native, grew up a Knicks fan and remembers going to two games with the Boys & Girls Club and one with his father, sitting in the nosebleeds each time.
While Thibodeau has a reputation for being a taskmaster, Gibson said he loves reminiscing with him about New York teams of years past: Jeff Van Gundy screaming on the sideline, Thibodeau with a full head of hair, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson and the bright lights at the Garden that make the court feel like a stage.
"He talks about the Knicks all the time," Gibson said. "He talks about the back-in-the-day Knicks all the time. He talks about his tough guys. Thibs is a bully. He was a bully back in the day. So every day in the morning, you gotta be on point, you gotta be ready, because you never know what he's going to come at you with. He has that mentality. He's a tough guy.
"We love it. We talk about L.J., Spree, all that stuff. All the time. All day."
That night, Gibson scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds and Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns had 24 points and 13 boards. Minnesota hardly dominated the lowly Knicks, though, allowing swingman Tim Hardaway Jr. to score 39 points on 25 field-goal attempts in a game that was much closer than it should have been. Four of Minnesota's five starters played 38 minutes or more, which is not unusual for a Thibodeau team, and its early lead evaporated when New York went on a 15-0 run to start the second half.
The Wolves have continued to be frustrating since then. They trailed by as many as 29 in their loss in Philadelphia the next day, and they scored only 11 points in the fourth quarter in their loss to the (terrible) Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. It took a 56-point masterpiece from Towns for them to make up for their poor defense and beat the Hawks on Wednesday.
Thibodeau, of course, is the man who was expected to fix that defense, even with imperfect personnel. It is not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the handful of people most responsible for ushering in the modern NBA. He took advantage of the NBA's rule changes to create the Boston Celtics' title-winning defense in 2008, and opposing teams responded by putting a greater emphasis on pace, space and ball movement than we have ever seen before.
Today, though, Thibodeau is less often discussed as an innovator. Sometimes, he is dismissed as behind the times. Minnesota is dead-last in the NBA in 3-point attempts and 21st in pace. A quick glance at Cleaning the Glass' shooting stats page reveals that the Wolves have not forced many midrange shots -- 31.8 percent of their opponents shots are from that area -- and large portion of their offense (43.3 percent) has come from there.
Gibson has seen the narrative shift. He also knows that Thibodeau has something to do with his team's success. Heading into their game in Dallas on Friday, Minnesota is 43-33, the seventh seed in the Western Conference and ninth in the league in net rating despite star Jimmy Butler missing the last five weeks. The Timberwolves' style could be more aesthetically pleasing, sure, but being fourth in offensive rating indicates that taking care of the ball and beating teams up on the offensive glass still matters. And as unimpressive as their win in New York might have been, it clinched their first winning season since 2005.
"People just don't understand in this league it's hard to win," Gibson said.
Thibodeau said that they are "trying to change things here," and it must happen "game by game, day by day" without skipping any steps. Whatever you might think of this season's Wolves, they have unquestionably taken a step forward.
"When you're winning, they gotta find any kind of excuse to shake things up," Gibson said. "We got a good team. Guys don't really complain as much. Everybody just does their job."
When you think of old-school coaches, you might immediately hear Thibodeau's voice, somewhere between coarse and hoarse, screaming, "Ice!" He is extremely audible on Minnesota's broadcasts, but Gibson insists that he has mellowed a bit since their days with the Bulls. The Wolves are giving heavy minutes to the 22-year-old Towns and 23-year-old Andrew Wiggins, so perhaps a shift was necessary.
"He's calmed down so much," Gibson said. "Some things are still the same, but he's matured in different ways. He knows how to be patient. He just knows different things now."
On the subject of Thibodeau being turned into a caricature, Gibson is of two minds. On one hand, Gibson thinks Thibs is misunderstood. On the other, his reputation for being consumed by his craft is well-earned.
"If you don't play for him, it's always a myth," Gibson said. "But when you play for him, you see how much he pays attention to detail for the games and stuff, it's amazing. You can tell he's a real passionate guy. He just wants to win. But he's crazy at times. You gotta love it, though."
As hard as Thibodeau works, he is not a film-devouring robot. As much as he expects out of his players, he is not without compassion. It is fair to criticize how he manages his minutes, but it is worth mentioning that Gibson chose to sign with Minnesota after enduring countless Thibodeau practice sessions.
"I've just been around him so long now," Gibson said. "He doesn't even question me half the time. He's just like, oh it's Taj, he's gonna do it. In the NBA, when you've been around a coaching staff so long, it's kind of like a family. We've been around each other so long, kind of like San Antonio. That's what I like about it."
While former teammates Luol Deng and Joakim Noah's bodies have not held up into their 30s, Gibson is having the most productive and efficient season of his career at 32 years old. He might not agree with everything Thibodeau says, but they can talk about any subject. Those are the kind of discussions that are difficult to picture if your only mental image of Thibodeau is him ranting and raving on the sideline.
"If he doesn't really know you like that, he doesn't really communicate to you too well," Gibson said. "But once you get to play for him, once you really get to know him. and once you break that barrier of letting him know that you're tough and you can withstand anything, it's like he just opens up."
Even with the familiarity that comes with knowing Thibodeau for eight years, though, there remains one mystery that Gibson hasn't been able to figure out.
"I don't think he sleeps," Gibson said.
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