ORLANDO — In their respective returns to the Bulls’ lineup in Monday night’s 102-84 victory over the Magic at the Amway Center, All-Star center Joakim Noah and top reserve Taj Gibson didn’t do anything exceptional, certainly not by their lofty standards.
Noah, who came back from an ongoing bout of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, went for six points and five rebounds off the bench in 14 foul-plagued minutes, while Gibson fared a little bit better, scoring 12 points, blocking two shots and showing decent mobility on his ailing left knee.
But more than their statistics, the big-man duo’s combined presence gave the Bulls a lift.
“I thought [Noah and Gibson were] okay. A little winded, a little rusty. Taj seemed to pick up a second wind, so it was good,” opined their harshest critic, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought both guys were very active. It was just good to have some depth, to have some guys you can play up front.”
“The thing is we’ve been short-handed,” continued the coach, who acknowledged that “it’s a possibility” that the pair could be on a minutes limit entering the postseason, which begins next weekend. “Jo basically has missed a lot since the All-Star Break. We sort of managed because Nazr (Mohammed) stepped up and Taj was playing effectively, but then Taj going down forced us to play more small than we wanted to. That’s the real value of Taj and Jo, when teams go small you can stay big, and then you have a rebounding advantage. That’s their strength, their defensive ability. And Taj doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is defensively, but both guys were huge.
“The thing that it did was it put people back into normal position. I thought Jimmy (Butler)was very effective at the four when we went small, and I think that when you’re more with your normal lineup, when you have two bigs and a normal rotation with your perimeter players, you’re going to be more fluid. When you’re constantly jumping around, moving guys in, moving guys out, this guy is playing, this guy is not playing, it’s going to be choppy.”
Translating Thibodeau-speak for laypeople, he was satisfied with the contributions the Bulls got from Noah and Gibson.
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Their teammates were more effusive.
“The leadership and the energy that they bring, you see those guys yelling when a big play happens or the hustle plays that they make, just the way that they lead out there on both ends of the floor, I feel like you can put them in any situation to make our team successful and that’s them guarding a two-man; they don’t back down from any challenge. I feel like that’s big. I feel like that’s big for us because we switch a lot with them, they can play multiple positions and they’re a mismatch for any team,” explained Butler, who had a solid all-around night of eight points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a team-high 38 minutes. “But they bring way more to our team than just defense. They’re two leaders who have been for the longest, for the most part, so it’s just good to have them back, to have their presence on both ends of the floor.”
Carlos Boozer, who paced the Bulls in scoring with 22 points, chimed in: “We’ve had guys out for so long and we are a team that has people on this team for certain reasons. This is why our team works. For us, it’s good to see Taj back out there and Jo back out there, and hopefully we’ll go into the playoffs healthy.
“I just love us healthy. When we’re healthy and we have the whole squad, we’re a dangerous team.”
As for the returnees themselves, they were clearly pleased to rejoin their teammates on the court, though Noah tempered his enthusiasm.
“Felt pretty good and just got one more, and then it really starts, so I’m just happy that my foot held up and just on to the next one,” said Noah, who admitted that his conditioning and timing weren’t at their best. “I’ve got to make my free throws. The game was going pretty fast and just try to slow down a little bit, and screen better. Overall, I think I can play better, but it was a good first step.”
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Noah revealed that after his initial return to the lineup from the ailment, an April 7 loss at Detroit, he knew immediately that he had experienced a setback, so while he didn’t directly answer whether he believed he’d have to play through pain in the postseason, the center claiming that he’ll “be all right” for at least Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Washington at the United Center should be taken as a positive.
Gibson, who went through a similar scenario — he re-aggravated a February left-knee sprain during an April 2 loss at Washington — was more optimistic.
“[The knee] felt great. The training staff, we’ve just been putting a lot of time, a lot of effort, just resting and it was real frustrating. A lot of just time off, just taking care of it. It’s real frustrating, though. But to be back, it felt good. But Thibs and the training staff monitored my minutes, and they did a great job,” he said. “I was just working my way in, picking my spots. The main thing I wanted to do was just play some defense, get our defense back because our defense was really awful the last couple games. Just contesting shots, getting off-side help and it was good.”
While he made an impact defensively, it was a pleasant surprise to see Gibson seemingly make progress on the offensive end as the game went on.
“It’s different when you’re working out, when you really have nobody pushing you or guarding you on defense. In the game, it was a lot faster, but my teammates were looking for me. I took my time, really. It felt weird to be back, but I had fun tonight,” he explained.
Gibson wore a bulky knee brace during the game, but he insisted that it didn’t overly affect his mobility.
“I felt good. The brace is real protective. I’ve just got to get really used to it. It’s kind of heavy, but I’ll adjust,” he said. “It felt fine. I’ve still got to get used to it because the brace is so heavy and Thibs lets me switch on multiple positions, so I’ve just got to get used to it.”
Just like the Thibodeau has to get used to once again having depth.