Connecticut raised, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s allegiance in Sunday’s New England-Atlanta Super Bowl isn’t the least bit in doubt.
“You don’t even have to ask that question,” he said. “The Patriots, that’s my team.”
But he also was Foxborough-educated once upon a time, with one memorable day spent visiting and studying Patriots coach Bill Belichick that went beyond his boyhood fandom.
Mutual friend Tony La Russa — four-time Manager of the Year in baseball — set up the 2012 visit on the final day of the Patriots’ OTAs. A coach who has meticulously studied his craft all his adult life, Thibodeau nearly five years later considers those hours spent that summer’s day something of an epiphany.
“I just loved everything they do,” Thibodeau said. “The way they execute. The way they practice. The way they talk. They all talk the same language. They’re all on the same page. There’s great humility. The best thing about them is whatever comes their way, they handle it: A guy gets injured, sometimes someone leaves through free agency, the next guy comes in and they find ways to win.”
The Patriots lost star quarterback Tom Brady for the 2008 season after he tore knee ligaments in the opener. With Matt Cassel promoted, they went 11-5 but missed the playoffs. When Thibodeau visited in 2012, his Chicago Bulls team had just lost star Derrick Rose to a serious knee injury himself in that spring’s playoffs.
“I was just getting ready to go through a year without Derrick and I wanted to get some thoughts on that,” said Thibodeau, who now will have to do the same again with injured Zach LaVine. “I thought the way they handled that — the way they were able to get past that injury — was pretty special. They didn’t use it as an excuse. They used other people. Everybody had a job to do and they executed it. You don’t replace a guy like Brady individually. You do it collectively and that’s what they did.”
The Bulls went 45-37 and reached the second round of the playoffs without Rose that next season. Thibodeau guided them there using principles and catchphrases he has adopted for his own through the decades, but borrowing one he particularly chose from Belichick:
Do your job.
That message is signposted throughout the Patriots’ practice facility.
“That’s his thing,” Thibodeau said. “It’s everywhere. His messaging, his leadership is terrific. Oftentimes you hear Coach Bill will say it, then Tom Brady says it, then the rest of the team says it. They have great order. It’s great leadership.”
Thibodeau visited 13 NBA teams during his sabbatical last season and studied all kind of coaches, choosing to borrow this and discard that. But in a brief visit with a football coach he appeared to have found common ground on everything, except maybe personal politics.
“There’s nothing that he overlooks,” Thibodeau said. “Seeing him teach, seeing his leadership and communication, the way they did everything from the concentration in their meetings to how they practiced, it all was fascinating to me.
“I wish I could take my team — particularly the young guys — and show them the way Brady practiced every play in OTAs in the middle of summer. There was so much precision, you’d like every young player to see that.”
Thibodeau knew Belichick when he attended Celtics games Thibodeau helped coach a few years earlier, but not like those fleeting hours spent together.
“It was a great day just to talk coaching,” he said. “The things that go into winning are similar in every sport. Just to be around two guys like that — two Hall of Fame guys who have won at such a high level for a long time — was a great experience for me.”
• Miami has followed a 1-10 stretch by winning nine in a row entering Saturday’s home game against Philadelphia … and was still stuck 10 games below .500.
The Heat is headed to Target Center on Monday with an improved defense and with Dion Waiters scoring like he was expected to in Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
“It’s not about how many wins we can get in a row,” coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters Friday. “I know it’s creating a lot of interest right now. It’s the product of a lot of work all season, and that work does not guarantee anything. We’re putting in this kind of work and making a lot of improvement and progress, and we went 1-9.”
• Houston retired former star Yao Ming’s No. 11 jersey Friday and during the ceremony, he told a story about how the team and teammates made him feel at home his rookie season by giving him a traditional Chinese New Year gift: a red envelope with money in it.
It contained two measly $1 bills, but it had a lasting effect because he has carried one of them in his pocket ever since.
“Because I know no matter where I go, as long as that bill’s in my pocket,” Yao told the crowd, “home is with me.”
• Wolves young star Andrew Wiggins debuted a new pair of Adidas green shoes last week, a fashion statement for which now-injured teammate Zach LaVine takes credit.
“I told him to get a little flavor in his life,” LaVine said of his fellow 21-year-old. “He’s always wearing the generic blue-and-white or black-and-white Adidas. I feel like I’m the shoe guy, so I went over to his house and I found out he has more packages, unopened, than he even knows. He should have worn the green ones on Christmas. He has an all-white pair with an icy-blue bottom. Ohhh, swag!”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Miami
Wed.: 7 p.m. vs. Toronto
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. New Orleans
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Toronto lost seven of their past nine games including Friday at Orlando, but the All-Star Game reserve scored 30 or more points in a four-game stretch that ended Wednesday. He averaged 32.5 points on 53.2 percent shooting and 7.3 assists in those four games.
“He was one of the guys who elevated the competition. He’s half the reason why it was so special.”
Orlando’s Aaron Gordon to TNT about Wolves guard and two-time All-Star dunk champ Zach LaVine, who had decided against trying to defend his title this year.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves