John Paxson: Playoffs a grind, but Bulls will be ready

With the Bulls’ second round series against the Atlanta Hawks now set,’s Adam Fluck sat down with EVP-Basketball Operations John Paxson to discuss a wide range of topics including Derrick Rose’s remarkable will, Luol Deng as the ‘unsung hero,’ r

“Having a tough series with Indiana, our guys now know that each game could be a grind,” said Paxson, above with Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf on March 12 when the 20th anniversary of the 1990-91 championship team was celebrated. “You have to make the most of your opportunities, which we did.” (Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)

By Adam Fluck | 04.29.2011 After four hard-fought games in the first round series against the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls were by far the superior team in the decisive Game 5. What stood out to you about the team’s performance in that game?

John Paxson: “First of all, Indiana played very well the entire series and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. In Game 5, our guys had the sense that they wanted to take care of things that night. We had gotten off to poor starts earlier in the series, and the energy we started the game with was the key. We were very aggressive, we pushed the ball, and we forced them back on their heels a little bit. Even though they made a couple pushes back at us, we stayed in attack mode and that’s why we were able to close it out so efficiently.” What are some of the adjustments the team has to make in order to improve their play in the second round?

Derrick Rose

Paxson on Rose: “All he cares about is winning. He wants to be the best and you can’t hold that back. He has grown right into this role and proven he’s ready to take it on.”

(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)

Paxson: “One of the things that we didn’t do a good job of was taking care of the ball. When we broke down their points off our turnovers, it was significant. Those are generally easy scores for your opponent. The first four games were all tight games and our defense in the half court was really good, but we gave up a lot of points off of our mistakes. We’ve got to tighten up what we’re doing on the offensive end in terms of timing and execution to avoid those turnovers. Tom [Thibodeau] addressed that a lot with the team during the series. Then, going into Game 5, the idea of pushing the ball early so they couldn’t load up their defense seemed to relieve us of a lot of those things. It helped eliminate mistakes and created a better flow of our offense. Next series, Atlanta will provide us with a different set of issues. But we know that if we take care of the ball and take good shots each possession, we’re doing well offensively.” Though he didn’t shoot particularly well in Indiana, it was Derrick Rose once again putting the weight of the team on his shoulders in the first round. What do you expect from Derrick as the postseason continues?

Paxson: “Derrick seems to have a will about him that I’ve only seen a couple other guys have. He doesn’t make excuses when he has a subpar performance. He takes it upon himself to get it right, and he generally does. He’s a unique guy that way. I think that Derrick and the rest of our guys will be a little more mentally fresh heading into this next series. The turnaround from our last game of the regular season and Game 1 of the playoffs was only two days. Now, we get an opportunity to take a breath and mentally get ourselves right again. That will serve us well in the next round.” From the time Derrick was drafted, the organization has been very protective of him in not putting too much on him too soon. But inevitably, there has become a great deal of weight on his shoulders. While there may be reason for concern with most 22-year old players in these situations, have we learned that Derrick is an exception to that rule?

Paxson: “He appears to be now. He’s had a unique way of handling all of this. From a basketball standpoint, we’ve certainly put a lot on him. Tom relies on him a great deal and most of what we do on the court is run through Derrick. But what I’ve been interested to see with him is how every time you go into the locker room after a game, Derrick’s attitude and demeanor is the same whether we have won or lost. It seems to me he is always thinking ahead, ‘OK, this game is over. Now, what do we need to do?’ He’s really accepted a great deal of responsibility. When we first got him, I know I was and I think everyone was concerned about throwing too much at him. But he’s embraced it. When you talk to him, all he cares about is winning. He wants to be the best and you can’t hold that back. He has grown right into this role and proven he’s ready to take it on.” There are so many great players in the league, so maybe it’s not fair to make the argument that anyone is a clear-cut NBA MVP. But isn’t Rose the obvious choice this season?

Paxson: “I think so. We were the best team in the league in terms of record with 62 wins. He took a step up in so many ways—not just his scoring going up five-plus points a game, but in big game and end of game situations, he did things this season consistently that were not there last year. To me, that is what stands out head and shoulders above everyone else. As we look to the future, we’re still trying to build a team and put pieces together. Along the way, he’s had to accept a lot of the pressure. When you look statistically at how much he contributed to our offense, he’s as high as anyone in the league in terms of what he gave our team. The point guard position is such a crucial position. You look back a few years ago and Steve Nash won MVP two years in a row. He had more assists than Derrick, but his scoring wasn’t even close. What Derrick did this season is definitely worthy of MVP. While there are a lot of great players who had great years, when you factor in winning and the step he made as a player, I don’t think there is any other choice.”

Luol Deng

Paxson on Deng: “We’ve always had great confidence in him. It’s a reward for him to be such an integral part of the team’s success.”

(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images) How important has Luol Deng been to the team this season? Though his numbers are similar to last year’s, his impact seems so much greater and he’s clearly improved on the defensive end of the floor.

Paxson: “That is the thing that is the most telling. His numbers are almost identical. But we’re a better team this year—we have more options offensively, more weapons. Yet, Luol has been as consistent as he’s always been. What that tells you is that you put Lu in a situation and he’s going to find his way. Two things stand out to me about him this year—his overall consistency, and, like Derrick, the fact that he’s made big plays for us. The one that comes to mind is that corner three against Miami at home [on Feb. 24] that was a huge shot for us. Defensively, he has been outstanding. That small forward position is a tough position to defend every night, but he’s accepted every challenge. Tom has been really good for him. He doesn’t back down from guys, he’s gotten in to them on the perimeter, and he just keeps going at guys over and over again. Luol has definitely been our unsung hero. With Derrick rightfully getting so much attention that is deserved, I can guarantee you that everyone at the Berto Center knows Luol’s value. I’m very happy and very proud for him, because he’s taken a few shots over the years from fans and things like that, but we’ve always had great confidence in him. It’s a reward for him to be such an integral part of the team’s success.” Is he an obvious All-NBA defender?

Paxson: “I don’t think there is any question. Let’s face it, we were one of the best defensive teams in the league, and one of our best individual and team defenders has been Luol Deng. How do you not recognize that?” Joakim Noah was very good in the final two games of the Indiana series, recording 21 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4 and 14 and eight in Game 5. Do you feel he’s getting back to the level he was playing at in November, when he averaged 15.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game?

Paxson: “He seems to be on the cusp of that. You can never discount the impact on a player when he has endured a significant injury, especially one that involves surgery. Gar [Forman] and I noticed there were times with his thumb when he wasn’t quite there yet. Sometimes, it’s a matter of confidence as much as anything. But we rely so much on Joakim, his energy and his enthusiasm. In the Indiana series, you saw he got into their heads a little bit with his play, hustle and determination. He really never quits on a play. We’ve always liked our big man depth, but we need him. The reality is that he’s our starting center and he has to carry a lot of the load defensively in protecting the paint and the rim. We need him out there. But I was encouraged these last couple games especially, because he did look like his old self. He was playing through the fatigue and still producing. We need him to have a big series next round too.” Carlos Boozer struggled at times and found himself in foul trouble during a couple games in the first round, but still averaged a double-double for the series. What will it take to get him going offensively in the second round?

Paxson: “We’ve relied on Carlos a lot this year to help us win games too. This whole thing—winning 62 games—has been a team effort. Everyone will always point to what Derrick has done and Tom’s ability to coach this team, but it’s still a group of guys that have come together and Carlos has been a big part of that. I think in the series against Indiana, he just wasn’t able to find his groove and it was frustrating for him. But players go through things like that. Sometimes it is during the course of the season, but when it’s during the playoffs, it’s magnified because the focus is on you. We have a lot of confidence in Carlos and the issue now is with his turf toe. We hope that it will settle down over these next few days as we head into the next round because we need him. People forget that any time you can throw the ball inside, that’s a form of penetration offensively. It’s a threat to the defense because they have to collapse. There was a big possession in Game 3 in Indiana where we threw the ball inside to Carlos, the Pacers came to help, he kicked it out to Kyle [Korver,] and Kyle made a big three that was a huge shot for us. The ability to get the ball down low—something we haven’t had before—is an important dynamic for our team. We’ve watched Carlos over a long period of time and we’re confident he’s going to find his way. It’s been a tough little stretch, but we won our first round series and he’ll be important to us in the next one.”

Joakim Noah

Paxson on Noah: “We rely so much on Joakim, his energy and his enthusiasm. In the Indiana series, you saw he got into their heads a little bit with his play, hustle and determination. He really never quits on a play.” You just mentioned Kyle Korver, who stepped up and made some major baskets in the first round. Along with guys like Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, Kurt Thomas, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik, he’s a part of that extremely valuable bench which makes the Bulls as deep as they’ve been in a long time.

Paxson: “Our bench as been huge for us. You think about how many games this season in which our reserves have made key contributions that have helped us win, whether it was Ronnie coming in for defensive possessions at the end or Kyle making big shots down the stretch of a playoff game. I view our bench as a real professional group. They have accepted their roles and they understand that what they do helps us win. Case in point was Game 5 when Taj came in after Carlos got into foul trouble and injured his toe. Taj was the MVP of that game in my opinion with what he did for us—rebounding, shot blocking, making shots and standing up physically to the Pacers with how they were playing. C.J. had a really nice game in Game 5, too. You have to remember, this is his first playoff series and sometimes it’s tough, you’ve got to get your legs underneath you. For him to have a nice game makes him a little more comfortable and bodes well for us heading into the next round. When we were able to get some of these guys in free agency and put them together, you don’t know what they’re going to be. But this group has really come together.” If you had to pinpoint just one thing, what would be coach Tom Thibodeau’s greatest contribution to the Bulls’ success this season?

Paxson: “Tom’s daily focus on the task at hand is what stands out the most to me. He’s always asking what we need to do today in order to get better. He rarely looks ahead and he definitely doesn’t let our guys look ahead. He has approached every single day the same way and every game as an important game to try and win. That one-mindedness has been really good for our team. That’s the one thing, but there are so many. What I’ve been most impressed with in terms of him on the practice floor is his ability to teach. A lot of times when teams are playing, you can see that there is a level of indecision as when the information is being relayed from the coaches to the players, often there is a gray area out there. Rarely, if ever, is there a gray area with our group. And that’s the way he teaches it. It’s made our defense better and in a lot of ways, it’s made our offense better. He’s just really good, and he’s deserving of Coach of the Year, there’s no question about it.” How do you rate his chances of claiming that award, given he has some formidable competition in Denver’s George Karl, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Philadelphia’s Doug Collins and Portland’s Nate McMillan?

Paxson: “There are a lot of good coaches who did great jobs this year. But how many first year coaches can come in and have the impact that he’s made? We went from 41 to 62 wins. We had no identity defensively the past two years, but he came in and created one for us. He develops roles for each player that they embrace. A lot of guys have done great jobs, but he’s done the best by far.” Given this is still a very young team which just won its first playoff series, is it especially important to have that approach and take it day-by-day? With a 62-win regular season and a 22 year old who will likely be named NBA MVP, the expectations for this group have rapidly and exponentially grown.

Tom Thibodeau

Paxson on Thibodeau: “Tom’s daily focus on the task at hand is what stands out the most to me. He’s always asking what we need to do today in order to get better.”

Paxson: “Yes it does. The reality is that you can’t ever get too far ahead of yourself as a coach or a player. Another reality is that you can have a great regular season, but the playoffs are what really count. We still are a young team. Maybe some veteran groups who have won more in the postseason can take a different approach, but we’re not in that position. Tom’s ability to keep us directed and focused is what we need. We’re a prepared group under Tom, who, as an assistant for 20 years, knows every scheme imaginable, what teams are doing, tendencies of individual players and how he wants them defended. He relays all of those things to our players and as a result of being prepared, we’re also confident. There’s a confidence that comes from the work Tom and his staff put into each and every game. It’s important in the regular season, but it really pays off in the playoffs.” Could it end up being a good thing that the first round ended up being so difficult? For a young group that is not battle tested in the NBA Playoffs, perhaps it could benefit them taking the Indiana Pacers’ best shot and still finding a way to win the series 4-1.

Paxson: “What’s important to recognize is that our league is really good. There are a lot of quality basketball teams. After they made the coaching change and inserted different players into their starting lineup, Indiana became a much better team. It’s easy for fans to look at the one versus eight seed and say it should be easy, but I know as a player who was on teams with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen that we never approached a series and thought it would be easy. You just can’t and it’s too important. In 1991-92, we won 67 games in the regular season and everyone thought the playoffs would be a breeze for us because the year before, they were. We went 15-2 in the playoffs to win the first championship. But they weren’t so easy the second time around. With the exception of the first round, we lost at least two games in every series. You just don’t know. So having a tough series with Indiana, our guys now know that each game could be a grind. You have to make the most of your opportunities, which we did. We came from 10 points down with three minutes to go in Game 1 and seized that game. I think it’s good that our guys know it’s not easy. Had we gone through the first round and won each game by 20, that’s your expectation the next round. Every game is a battle and I’m glad our team saw that in the first round.” What’s your first take on facing the Atlanta Hawks in the second round after their 4-2 series win over the Orlando Magic?

Paxson: “The Hawks are really, really talented and they’ve got a lot of offensive weapons. Joe Johnson is one of the best scorers in the league. In the playoffs, often you try to isolate a certain player to create an advantage and Johnson is always a tough cover because of his size. He creates problems. They’ve got very good frontcourt players, too. Al Horford is an All-Star. They’ve got a lot of athleticism across the board and Jamal Crawford is a bit of a wild card. When he’s making shots, he’s capable of scoring 40 points in a game. And sometimes his shots are unguardable—you can be right on him and he can still connect from deep. One of the things that really helped them after the All-Star break was their trade for Kirk Hinrich. If he’s healthy, he gives them a defensive minded guard who will be right in Derrick’s face and won’t back down. They have a lot of versatility that could cause problems, but we’ll be ready.”