INDIANAPOLIS—Don’t count Pacers head coach Frank Vogel in the contingent that believes that the currently short-handed Bulls aren’t a dangerous team.
“They’re playing even harder short-handed, so if we think we’re getting a wounded animal here, we just can’t take this team lightly. You can’t fall victim like Atlanta did,” he explained. “Atlanta didn’t come out and lay an egg. They came out and played fairly hard, but nowhere near as hard as Chicago was playing and that’s the message that we sent to our guys today.”
However, Indiana’s frontline — center Roy Hibbert is 7-foot-2, veteran power forward David West has a reputation as one of the toughest players in the league and All-Star Paul George is an elite-level athlete — presents a unique challenge.
For that reason, Taj Gibson isn’t resting on his laurels after his 19-point, career-high 19-rebound effort in Saturday’s win at Atlanta, as defending up with Hibbert will be a different type of matchup than playing the Hawks’ Al Horford, who is more like a power forward, or even Brooklyn’s All-Star Brook Lopez.
“One thing about playing ball for a while, you’re just familiar with a lot of players. I’m always looking forward to the challenge and even when I was in college, I had to play center. I had to play in the Pac-10 with Kevin Love and the Lopez twins. I had to go against a lot of different bigs, so I was familiar with it. I go against Joakim and Carlos every day in practice, so I feel that I’ll go out there and give it my best shot, but I’ll be ready, no matter what,” Gibson explained. “I’ve matched up with Hibbert a lot. I watch a lot of film on players, just trying to affect him different ways. That’s one thing that you have to do if you don’t get a lot of minutes early. You just have to always be ready, watch a lot of film, watch the game, see what their tendencies are. That’s what I’ve been doing lately, just being patient and now, I have to just step up.
“One thing about it, when you play so many minutes back-to-back, your body just wants to lay down and not do anything. But the first thing I did when I got up, I got some breakfast yesterday and just went to the gym, and worked out. Lifted some weights, got in the pool, swam for a little bit with the training staff and just got my mind right. Got a massage, just tried to just stay doing things and I feel good today.
I feel ready. It’s all a mind thing. Once you get out there, once you start sweating and stuff, your mind gets ready.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, while he certainly appreciated Gibson’s strong outing Saturday, believes the fourth-year pro is capable of that type of performance on a nightly basis, if necessary.
“Well, that’s gone. We’ve got to be ready for tonight’s game. This is going to be a physical, intense battle. I don’t want guys looking backwards; I want them looking ahead. We have to be ready for what’s coming. Taj has shown that he can play the four, the five. He can start, come off the bench. He just has to keep his focus on his improvement and be ready for the Pacers tonight,” he said. “[Gibson’s impact is] huge and that’s every night. All the things that he brings to our team, we need. The defense, the rebounding, the ability to make a shot, to post, to be aggressive in the paint, those are the things we expect from him every night.”
From Gibson’s teammates to his opponents, people have taken notice of his recent work.
Praised injured All-Star Joakim Noah, the man Gibson has replaced as the starting center temporarily: “He’s working hard, man. I’m really, really proud of this team. I feel like we work really hard every night. Win or lose, I feel like we’re giving everything we’ve got. We’re playing for one another right now and we’ve just got to keep grinding, keep our eyes on the prize, stay focused and the sky’s the limit.”
Chimed in Indiana’s George: “I’m a huge fan of Taj. Me and Taj work out every summer, and he’s a good friend of mine, so I’m well aware of what Taj is capable of and I know this team is aware of what he can do, so he’s definitely on the scouting report.”
All-Star Luol Deng also has a battle on his hands, as he’ll likely defend the rugged West.
“Mentally tough, physically tough. That’s the way he’s been since he’s gotten into the league,” Thibodeau lauded. “Great leader, gives them a lot of toughness. Big shot-maker. The guy’s had a terrific career, but you can see that he’s back to the way he was before.”
Deng told CSNChicago.com that as much as West has an advantage on him on the interior when he’s playing defense, he can turn the tables on the other end of the floor.
“Defensively, I do the best I can to make it a tough shot for whoever I’m guarding. I don’t care who I’m guarding. It could be a mismatch and they’ll look at it like a mismatch for them, but I trust in my defense,” he explained. “But my goal is always to set a lot of screens, move a lot on offense and make them think about that, and try to get that player out of the game. If they’re going to hurt me one way, I’m going to try to hurt them the other way and it’s almost like a chess game.”