CHICAGO – The Chicago Bulls see the dedication, the preparation, the hours their coach puts in, and they just can’t help but joke about it. Does Tom Thibodeau go home?

For the record, he insists he does.

Thibodeau even went to the movies recently. He saw “The Fighter” and loved it, but the best show playing in Chicago these days just might be the one he’s directing.

Finally a head coach after two decades as an NBA assistant, Thibodeau has the rebuilt Bulls challenging for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and capturing the city’s imagination in a way not seen since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen soared around the United Center.

Derrick Rose is making a strong case for MVP and has a deep cast surrounding him as Chicago battles Boston for supremacy in the East.

Directing it all is a coach who has turned out to be everything the team hoped for when he got the job.

“It’s a great opportunity and I knew that going in,” Thibodeau said. “When I was studying the teams last year, I felt that because of the makeup of the guys that were already here and the fact that they were very young, I felt that they had a very good young nucleus and I loved the way they played.

“I think through the careful planning of the management team and ownership, they created a lot of cap space so I knew you would be able to add to it. The history of the team, the tradition — it had everything that I was looking for.

“And then after being here, once you get to know the guys better, you couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”

The Bulls had back-to-back 41-win seasons under Vinny Del Negro, but first-round playoff exits left them hoping for more. They’re getting it under Thibodeau even though they struck out trying to lure LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over the summer.

While those three united in Miami, the Bulls built a deep team by signing Carlos Boozer and filling out the roster in an overhaul that left them with just five returning players.

But Rose continues to improve, Luol Deng has stayed healthy and is enjoying probably his best season, making major contributions on both ends, and Joakim Noah is coming through in a big way when healthy.

And don’t underestimate Thibodeau’s impact.

“(General Manager) Gar Forman and everybody told us that he was going to be a great coach,” Rose said. “They called him a superstar coach, and that’s what he’s becoming.”

Not bad, considering Thibodeau’s only other stint as top man was for one season at his alma mater, Division III Salem State in the mid-80s. He got that after three years as an assistant.

He then spent four seasons on the staff at Harvard before going to work under Bill Musselman with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989. From there, Thibodeau embarked on a long path that ultimately led to this.

There were stops in San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York and Houston, and along the way, he developed a reputation as a defensive wizard and hardworking assistant, one who helped Boston win the championship in 2008 and get back to the finals last season.

Unknown, however, was how he would fare as a head coach.

Well, how’s this?

The Bulls rank among the stingiest teams even though they don’t have a clear-cut choice for a first-team, all-defensive pick. That hasn’t stopped them from holding opponents to 91.14 points per game, behind only Boston.

“They say that if you want to hurt someone, don’t open up your hand and hit them, close your fist,” said Johnny Bach, the assistant coach and defensive architect on the Bulls’ championship teams in the early 1990s. “That team is together. They are. They’re playing excellent.

“They’ll have a chance to play for the championship. The question is how fast.”

Players credit Thibodeau.

“He has a commanding presence,” said Chicago forward Brian Scalabrine, who played for Thibodeau in Boston.

He saw Thibodeau instantly connect with a Celtics team that had three superstars in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, a talented young point guard in Rajon Rondo and a top head coach in Doc Rivers.

“He had all of our attention and more,” Scalabrine said. “That is not an easy task to do. He walked in there, boom, he had our attention.”

In Chicago, it’s been more of the same.

Rose always saw the light on in the coach’s office during the summer when he’d work out at the team’s practice facility in suburban Deerfield. On bus rides, he said Thibodeau usually sits in front looking over video, no matter how late.

The Bulls will go over the opponent’s playbook, analyzing every option. During games they’ll hear the other team call a play and immediately look to Thibodeau because he knows what’s coming.

“I think sometimes (Thibodeau) knows the plays better than the other team knows the plays,” Kyle Korver said. “He’s like, ‘They should have done this, actually, but this is what they’re going to try to do.’ He’s just a basketball junkie.”

And the players can’t help themselves. They joke that he lives at the team’s practice facility, while wondering why he didn’t get hired sooner.

Thibodeau is simply glad he got the chance.