By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Twice in Monday's pregame media session before his Bulls' 110-90 preseason win against the Nuggets at the United Center, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau brought up the defending champion San Antonio Spurs without being solicited. This wasn't particularly surprising, given Thibodeau's well-documented respect for coach Gregg Popovich and an organization he's previously called the "gold standard."
Yet there was a purpose to this, seeing as the Spurs weren't in town, as Thibodeau soon began referencing San Antonio's box scores from its first two preseason games, in which aging stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker played at least 33 minutes in each night.
"It's a strong message – what they're saying right now," Thibodeau said. "They're preparing themselves to defend their championship. So in order to get that away from them, you're going to have to wrestle it away from them.
"Your mindset has to be right. They say Duncan never leaves the gym. When you look at great players, when you read about guys who have achieved something great, it's usually them getting past adversity, them making great effort – their readiness to accept a challenge. I think you need a great commitment from your team if you want to do something special. That commitment has to start at the beginning, and it has to remain throughout."
The underlying message, of course, was that the Bulls (2-2) aren't where they need to be early on.
"We have a lot of guys who aren't sharp," Thibodeau said late Monday, even after the victory.
"We need to get an edge. We don't have an edge right now."
Monday's game did little to ease Thibodeau's present-day concerns, as the Bulls trailed 50-29 with 5:25 left in the second quarter.
What Monday did do was flash some of the potential of these Bulls, who stormed back with a 29-8 run to tie the game at halftime and then gradually pulled away in the second half with a suffocating defense and an efficient fourth-quarter offense. It only took 37 seconds in the second quarter to get the rally going, with two Doug McDermott 3-pointers sandwiched around a Jimmy Butler transition bucket kick-starting the big run.
It was the type of comeback that Chicago squads of the past three seasons may have been capable of, but certainly not with this ease. It's for that reason a quiet confidence resides with this bunch, even if the early play has too often been sloppy.
"Right now, we are all hungry, and that's a good thing," Pau Gasol said. "Now it's just a matter of seeing and measuring up against other teams.
"We're in the early stage. (Reaching a championship level is) in our minds. We know what we desire, but we got a lot of work to do, and that's what we have to focus on."
There weren't any big-picture takeaways against an overmatched Denver squad, but a few more hints emerged as to what lies ahead for Chicago. Both rookies vying for playing time impressed offensively after struggling defensively.
Nikola Mirotic had 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting and once again was comfortable putting the ball on the floor, though he and Taj Gibson couldn't handle 280-pound Nuggets big man Jusuf Nurkic, who had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, most of the success coming from point-blank range.
After losing his man on several first-half possessions, McDermott settled in and finished with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
"You have to judge it for what it is," Thibodeau said of McDermott. "This is the preseason."
Thibodeau also singled out Butler, Gibson and Kirk Hinrich as the players who have performed the best in the preseason. His common refrain has been that players must show consistency or he'll tab the next guy, for he has more options this season.
While Thibodeau has sounded some alarm bells as a motivational tool, the players have downplayed the concern. "It's a process," Joakim Noah reminded everyone.
"He's always pushing buttons, and I think it's a good thing," Noah said. "There's nothing comfortable about what we do. As soon as you get comfortable, you get your (butt) kicked. So I think he's just trying to make sure we stay on edge, we keep working hard. And I think if we do that, he knows we'll have a shot to do something good. But we just have to keep fighting, keep getting better."
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.
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