MIAMI -- His 12 points and four rebounds in nearly 25 minutes of action in Monday night’s Game 1 win over the Heat in Eastern Conference semifinals was nothing out of the ordinary for Taj Gibson. Considering his track record for coming up big in big games -- but after struggling in the first round against his hometown Nets -- it was certainly a good omen.
The Bulls’ top reserve entered the playoffs still recuperating from a re-aggravation of a left-knee sprain and also was hit by the flu bug during the Brooklyn series. As a result he hasn’t made the impact many are accustomed to seeing from him, particularly in the postseason.
In fact, going back to the regular season, Gibson has been more inconsistent than usual while dealing with physical ailments, a new group of fellow reserves and the distraction of a contract negotiations at the outset of the campaign which resulted in a long-term deal.
But against Miami’s small-ball approach, the defensive-minded Gibson’s combination of size, length, athleticism, agility, defensive versatility and a high activity level are crucial to the Bulls’ success. He's guarded everybody from Heat interior players like All-Star Chris Bosh, rugged power forward Udonis Haslem, shot-blocking center Chris Andersen and outside marksman Shane Battier. For good measure, he's been pitted against veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen and league MVP LeBron James.
“He’s such an important part of our team and he’s been nicked up most of the year, but I think he’s finally gotten healthy, so it’s a big plus for us,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He can guard all five positions. He’s very good offensively. He can hit a spot-up, he can post up, he can go to the board. He’s critical for us.”
While Gibson is known for his defense, his offense was also important. His ability to knock down catch-and-shoot mid-range jumpers was important for the Bulls’ spacing against Miami’s defense, which was extremely disruptive in the first half of Game 1.
“They had Ray Allen on me at times and they switched it off and put LeBron on me at times, but my job was to keep him away from the paint because I’m kind of a stretch four, so I was stretching the defense," Gibson said. "My jump shot was falling [Monday] and guys were looking for me, so whatever I can do to pull him away because he’s a strong-side shot-blocker.
"Whatever I can do to get him away from the basket, that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
With the Heat frequently opting to utilize a lineup with only one true post player on the court, Gibson was sometimes tasked with the defensive assignment of Allen -- the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter, whom Thibodeau coached in Boston.
“[Thibodeau is] telling me different things, telling me to chase him around the screens, stay down, fight through screens because Ray runs around. I’m not used to running around, chasing guards, if you can tell,” Gibson said of his coach’s instruction in defending his former player. “But he’s just teaching me ‘top lock’ [a defensive technique used to defend players running off screens], different things to guard Ray. He’s a hall of famer.”
Of course, Gibson does have unique experience guarding smaller players.
“I did that in practice,” he said. “Guarding Derrick [Rose].”