Attention to detail

Celtics assistant Thibodeau is known as a defensive genius, but those in position to know say his dogged preparation is what sets him apart — and will likely earn him a head coaching job

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2010

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Tom Thibodeau earned his reputation as a defensive guru through meticulous research and impassioned conviction.

The 2009-10 Celtics, a collection of usually skeptical (and stubborn) All-Stars, dutifully follow their associate head coach because he can break down any opponent and expose its weaknesses. His attention to detail and his 14-hour workdays have built for him unparalleled credibility among some of the most accomplished players in the game, even though his playing résumé is limited to four unspectacular years at Salem State.

Tonight when the Celtics open the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, they will take the court believing they are the most prepared team in the league.

“Tom knows his stuff,’’ said big man Kendrick Perkins. “He eats, sleeps, and breathes defense.’’

If only they knew.

Consider this scouting report on Boston’s 50-year-old basketball savant:

“Allergic to defense,’’ reports former Salem State teammate John Furlong. “If he scored 20 and his guy got 19, that was a good night.’’

“Tom very rarely crossed halfcourt without launching a shot,’’ claims Nate Bryant, who played for Thibodeau at Salem State. “He used to scrimmage with us, and if his shot didn’t go in, it was because he was ‘fouled.’ And if someone scored on him, which happened all the time, he’d call him either for a travel or a double dribble.

“He was a sore loser. The worst I’ve ever seen.’’

Thibodeau was a young man at Salem State, not yet exposed to the late great Bill Musselman, whose coaching techniques permanently affected the way Thibodeau viewed the game. Perhaps with maturity and perspective, his own defensive game would have evolved?

Nope. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recalls a charity event organized by Paul Silas in early 2000 that required the Knicks coaching staff (which included Thibodeau) to play in.

“Tibs could well be the best coach and worst defender I’ve ever seen,’’ Van Gundy declared. “He had poor lateral quickness. He didn’t seal off passing lanes. He could still score inside, but he couldn’t guard anybody.’’

Innovative approaches
His playing pedigree aside, Thibodeau’s success as a defensive whiz is well-documented. In his first season with Boston, the Celtics held opponents to a league-low 41.9 percent shooting and second-best 90.3 points a game. In 20 seasons, his teams have been in the top 10 in team defense 15 times.

It’s no wonder Thibodeau has been linked to head jobs in New Orleans, Chicago, and New Jersey.

Yet one of the many misconceptions about Thibodeau is that he’s strictly a defensive specialist. Although he arrived in Boston with the designation of “defensive coordinator,’’ in previous stints with Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, and Houston, he was also intricately involved in the offense.

Van Gundy was initially drawn to Thibodeau because of his innovative offensive sets, among them kick-and-drive sequences and his positioning of the big man at the baseline instead of on the block, providing extra space for a driver to finish or drop the ball off.

Van Gundy was also taken with Thibodeau’s player development skills. While most assistants taught individuals with one-on-none drills, Thibodeau blended those skills into the team concept. He didn’t just chart a conditioning program; he went into the weight room and explained specifically why each exercise was beneficial. Thibodeau spent hours in the film room schooling each player on how to isolate tendencies that would reap benefits in the final seconds of a critical game.

“His dedication to the individual player was way above the norm,’’ Van Gundy said.

Thibodeau cemented his authority with the Celtics by systematically studying nuances of his players and opponents to eliminate any element of surprise.

“You know those people who have to eat their food in a certain order?’’ said Celtics forward Glen Davis. “First they eat their peas, then their potatoes, then their meat. Well, that’s Tibs. You aren’t ever going to see a pea in the mashed potatoes.’’

Not at a loss for answers
Thibodeau was on a fast track to a head coaching gig this past winter when a seemingly routine January home game against Atlanta threatened to derail his reputation.

The Celtics were leading by 10 when Doc Rivers was ejected for arguing a flagrant foul called on Davis. Assistant coach Armond Hill was also tagged with a T, and by the time the Hawks were done shooting free throws, the 67-57 lead had been reduced to 6.

Thibodeau was entrusted with the job of stopping the bleeding, but as Joe Johnson starting drilling shots for the Hawks, the Celtics went cold. In the final 18:16, Thibodeau did not make a single substitution, and Boston lost the game.

Thibodeau was not available for comment afterward (the Celtics’ standing policy is to prohibit assistants from speaking to the media). A grim Rivers said, “Obviously it didn’t go well for us.’’

Thibodeau’s curious decision to stand pat with his lineup made headlines. Was he nervous? Overwhelmed? Unprepared? Skeptics wondered whether the short move from the assistant’s seat to the head coach’s chair was too cavernous for Thibodeau to navigate.

Rivers agreed to waive Thibodeau’s no-talk directive for this story — with the caveat that there would be no comment regarding his potential head coaching opportunities while the Celtics are still playing.

So what happened in that Jan. 11 game? Contrary to those who suspected Thibodeau was “unprepared,’’ it was his intimate knowledge of the fourth-quarter matchups that stopped him from making a move. The Hawks had sent point guard Mike Bibby to the bench and left Jamal Crawford to cover the point. Usually Bibby returns for the stretch run.

“The one guy I wanted to get back in the game was Eddie [House],’’ Thibodeau explained. “I was waiting for Bibby to check back in, but it didn’t happen.

“I knew I was taking a chance. We were shorthanded that night. Kevin [Garnett] and Rasheed [Wallace] were both out.

“I had studied the fourth-quarter matchups and I knew Jamal Crawford would be trouble for us. If you create a bad matchup, it can cost you 8-10 points.

“When we lost, I knew it would open me up to criticism. Things didn’t work out — but they could have.

“I just don’t worry about that stuff.’’

According to Thibodeau, the Atlanta loss has not come up in any of his head coaching interviews. Van Gundy said he was stunned by how many people jumped to conclusions following that one game.

“In retrospect,’’ Van Gundy said, “Tibs probably should have played the regular rotation but on a shorter lease — not because what he chose to do was wrong, but because it was so scrutinized and took on a life of its own. All of a sudden people were portraying him to be some robotic coaching drone, which is not who he is.

“Look, anyone who thinks there’s no learning curve when you slide over to [the head coach’s] seat is crazy.

“I can only guarantee you one thing: Any mistakes Tibs will make won’t be because of lack of preparation or because of a ‘deer in the headlights’ situation. Nobody cares more about getting it right.’’

Meeting Musselman
It has been true from the time he was a boy in New Britain, Conn., perfecting his jump shot and analyzing his neighbor’s curveball. When he arrived at Salem State, Thibodeau was a guard, but he realized he’d earn more time if he played as a 6-foot-1-inch power forward.

Thibodeau suffered a knee injury partway through his career. While his teammates drove to the beach all summer, Thibodeau was in the weight room, making himself stronger, better, smarter.

“He was a kid who was always asking questions,’’ said his former Salem State coach, Don Doucette. “He wanted to understand why.’’

When Thibodeau was named head coach at Salem State at the age of 25, he devoted a full hour out of his two-hour practice to reviewing scouting reports.

“Sometimes you’d come out of the game after giving up a basket, and he’d tell you, ‘I told you he was going to do that,’ ’’ Nate Bryant said. “And he was right.’’

As a Harvard assistant under childhood friend Pete Roby, Thibodeau became intrigued with Musselman, the quirky coach legendary for his preparation and emotional coaching style. He began corresponding with the man whose mantra was, “Defeat is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat.’’

This was Thibodeau’s kind of guy. In 1987, Musselman led the CBA’s Albany Patroons to a 48-6 record with a roster that included former and future NBA players Micheal Ray Richardson, Sidney Lowe, Tony Campbell, and Scott Brooks.

“His record was unbelievable,’’ Thibodeau said. “I said to myself, ‘I gotta see what this guy is doing.’ ’’

Thibodeau drove to Albany, N.Y., and met with Musselman at his tiny office inside an armory. Musselman ran his team through no fewer than 100 plays. The Patroons played crisp, disciplined team defense, rotating in unison as opponents swung the ball.

“I was amazed by what I saw,’’ Thibodeau said. “For a team to consistently execute that way was incredible. Bill was such a stickler. Their spacing was perfect. It really piqued my interest in the pro game.’’

In August 1989, Musselman was hired by the NBA expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. Thibodeau joined his staff and immersed himself in the game. It was not unusual for Thibodeau and Musselman to leave the gym after 1 a.m. They drew up plays on napkins, then later with laptops.

Van Gundy cautioned Thibodeau against letting the game consume him. His Celtic players do the same.

“I saw Tom the other day, and before I could say anything, he was telling me, ‘Paul, I need you to look at this,’ ’’ Paul Pierce said. “I have to remind him sometimes, ‘Hello Tom, how are you?’ ’’

Toning it down — a little
Those closest to Thibodeau know he likes cars, music, and women. But, for now, it’s all about basketball.

“You’ve got to understand, he grew up in a blue-collar environment where nobody gave him anything,’’ Roby explained. “He’s been working his whole life for this chance. He’s not going to waver until he gets there.’’

Earlier this season, Rivers and Thibodeau had different theories on how to shake the Celtics out of their malaise. Thibodeau painstakingly compiled data that accented the cracks in their defensive armor. Rivers simply decided to shut down the veterans and rest for the postseason.

“Tom is a go-go-go guy,’’ Rivers said. “I love that about him. But this was a case where I had to say to him, ‘Legs over brains.’ We needed to back off a bit.’’

The head coach’s gamble paid off. The Big Three got healthier, began playing better, and the team’s overall confidence peaked just as the postseason started.

“I give Doc a lot of credit,’’ Thibodeau said. “When you have a plan, you need to sell it to your team. They have to believe it’s the best thing. Doc convinced them.’’

Rivers’s approach has rubbed off on Thibodeau, who has learned there is such a thing as too much information.

“He’s really improved on that,’’ Rivers said. “A couple of years ago at our shootaround, he was giving them so much stuff I found myself saying, ‘All right. One more play.’

“This year, he lays out what we need and he’s the one saying, ‘We’re done, right?’

“Really, he’s been just phenomenal.’’

Thibodeau has spent the past week breaking down strategies to contain Kobe Bryant, drawing up game plans to push Andrew Bynum off the block, and devising rotations that will put the Celtics in an optimal position to rebound, which Thibodeau believes is critical in this series.

Perkins wondered about Thibodeau at first, until he tried swiping at the ball when his opponent was in the post the way his coach told him.

“Tibs said it would disrupt their rhythm,’’ Perkins reported, “and it did.’’

If the Celtics win the championship, it will be because they played the suffocating defense that set them on this startling postseason course. Although it’s a team thing, the balding gunner from Salem State should take a bow — perhaps for the final time before finally realizing his dream of becoming an NBA head coach.

Tom Thibodeau is ready for the Lakers. His team awaits his instructions.

“I have no trouble following a guy,’’ said Glen Davis, “who knows exactly where he’s going.’’

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