Gritty Gibson fights through pain, helps Bulls avoid deja vu


Gritty Gibson fights through pain, helps Bulls avoid deja vu

"When Taj went down, I was like, 'Not again,'" said Luol Deng.

"Not another player," thought Ronnie Brewer.

And typically, Tom Thibodeau grumbled, "It's part of it."

When Taj Gibson fell to the ground, clutching his right ankle after stepping on 76ers rookie Lavoy Allen's foot at the 2:06 mark of the third quarter in Tuesday night's Game 4 win in the Bulls first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, it was like deja vu. Again.

Already without Derrick Rose, watching from a luxury suite at the United Center after his season-ending torn left ACL injury in Game 1 of the series--a smart move, given that a scramble between Gibson and former Bull Elton Brand turned into a mild skirmish in front of the Bulls' bench, something that could have further injured Rose if he was sitting there--and Joakim Noah, who badly sprained his ankle in Game 3, an injury to Gibson would have been incomprehensibly tragic. More than just a fan favorite and an energy player, Gibson was one of the few Bulls having a consistently good overall showing against the Sixers and up to that point, he had been having another strong outing.

The third-year player got up under his own power, hobbled over to the bench and then retreated to the locker room with the Bulls' training staff, then, after having been medically cleared, shortly returned to the contest in the fourth quarter, in which he promptly knocked down a jumper--eerily similar to Noah's Game 3 return; he even had a pronounced limp, just like his fellow New Yorker--easing fears that Game 5 would be the last Bulls game of the season. Unlike Noah, however, Gibson insisted he was fine afterward and would play in Thursday's Game 6 at Philadelphia.

"Im OK. Things happen. Its the basketball gods. I guess things they saw me playing hard and things tend to happen when youre going hard, and I just came back," said Gibson, who had eight points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots on the night. "All I said was, God, dont do this now. Not now, especially when Im willing to go out there and just give it my all.

"Just got it re-taped. Not trying to sit down, just kept moving because thats the whole thing, just playing hard and keep the ankle moving," he continued, noting that he switched sneakers while in the locker room. "Ill be fine. Weve got a great training staff. Knowing myself, Im going to play. Im not going to sit out. I dont care about anything they say. Im going to play."

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: "I havent had a chance to speak with Fred yet, so hopefully hell be OK...Taj is playing great basketball for us right now. you hate to see anybody go down, but hes got a lot of toughness and if he can go, hell go."

Another difference from Noah's situation: Gibson left a contest in which the Bulls had the momentum, as opposed to Noah coming out of Game 3 when the Bulls' chance to win was slipping away and eventually did. But short-handed as they were without Noah--a formidable four-player big-man rotation was down to three, with Carlos Boozer playing extended minutes and fill-in starter Omer Asik playing more than he's accustomed to--Gibson had to not only return and help the team, but not hurt it.

"It was crazy! It was like, Aw, man! You had to get back in the swing of things. You dont want to come in and affect the team. You dont want to come in and mess up anything because I was watching the TV from the locker room and I saw that we had a 13-point lead, and guys were playing great. Omer was getting great rebounds, finishing strong and I just didnt want to come out and hurt the team," he excitedly explained.

"I was just focused on trying to slow down the offense on the other end, just tried to play solid defense. Try to get the ball when I can, shot contest. If I felt like I could get the rebound, I went for it. If not, just be smart, get back and use my fouls smart."

"One thing about our coaches, they give us so much freedom to trust our bodies. Training staff is great with the taping. Thibs gave me the nod. Im not going to go out there if Im going to hurt my team. If Im hurt, Im hurt. Theres a difference between being injured and being hurt. If youre hurt, you can go out there and will it. If youre injured, sit down. I just wanted to go out there. I know myself. If I was going to hurt my team, Id be sitting on the bench," Gibson continued. "No second-guessing. There wasnt any swelling and it wasnt bad. I still had mobility. We just re-taped it, kept being mobile and I went back out there.

"Its all about heart and will. I always play like this. Its nothing different. I go out there and Im going to play hard, Im going to lay it on the line. Any given night, Im going to do my job. One thing about our team, we have professionals. Just go out there and do your job."

Gibson didn't duplicate his 12-point second quarter from the other night, in which he scored 10 consecutive Bulls points and kept them afloat in Philadelphia before eventually falling in Game 4, but his gutty effort after the injury and impact on the interior prior to it received notice from the Sixers.

"The guy who's really done a great job for them is Taj Gibson," said Sixers head coach Doug Collins. "His numbers are only 3-of-7 and stuff, but his impact on the game has been terrific."

That's why losing him would have been so difficult for the already-decimated squad.

"The past two years, weve had so many injuries, but the good thing about this team, guys have been able to step in as needed. Weve got a day between and hopefully he can get some rehab, and get back out there because hes been playing phenomenal for us this series," said Brewer. "Jo the other day, I think if D-Rose was able to get back out there, hed try, too. But Taj is a tough kid, hes a warrior and we know what to expect from him. If its not broken, I think hes going to go out there and try to play. I knew he was going to come back out, give us what he had and he did that."

Echoed Deng: "A lot of teams went through it, but especially us, losing Derrick, Jo and then Taj coming down on his ankle. I was just screaming to him to just get up and just be in pain later, kind of play it off because I know we would hear about it."

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

The Bulls’ starting five is set and healthy before Thursday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, with Fred Hoiberg announcing that Taj Gibson will start at power forward after his strong preseason.

Or, if one chooses to be a little more realistic, Gibson won the competition in large part due to Nikola Mirotic’s underwhelming showing, as Mirotic came into camp as the favorite with his outside shooting making him a more natural fit offensively.

With Gibson’s insertion, the Bulls will be one of the worst 3-point shooting starting fives in the league, although Mirotic and Doug McDermott can balance things out when they’re on the floor.

“We feel like he has played excellent basketball throughout the preseason,” said Hoiberg of Gibson. “He’s been good in practices. We’ve talked to our guys about that. Niko has had a couple good practices in a row now. You try to get him in a good rhythm coming out of the gate. But that’s the way we’re going to start.”

Hoiberg has touted Mirotic’s practices as being stellar, but he struggled though most of the preseason. It seemed like Hoiberg was attempting to give Mirotic the benefit of the doubt before announcing what should’ve been obvious to those who’ve watched the Bulls in the preseason, that Gibson was the better performer.

“Taj is a fighter,” said Jimmy Butler, who wasn’t surprised with the outcome. “That’s one thing you know you’re going to get from him. He’s one of the toughest guys that we have, somebody that’s always working.”

One of Butler’s main concerns last season was that the Bulls lost their defensive identity, that their toughness left the building when Tom Thibodeau was fired and the offensive-minded Hoiberg was ushered in.

Presumably, Gibson’s nod can be taken as a return to the Bulls’ roots—although anyone in their right mind wouldn’t be wrong to think if Mirotic had been the least bit consistent, he would be a starter and Gibson would be a reserve.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“I think everybody is trying, man,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say that we’ve got the best defenders, that’s for sure, but as long as you’re putting in the effort. Sometimes good defense is just getting in the damn way. I’m telling you.”

The Bulls finished as a middle of the pack team in terms of defensive efficiency last season, but experienced a steep decline after the All-Star break, leading to their first lottery appearance since 2008.

“As long as guys are out there competing, we’ll take it if someone hits a tough shot over you or whatever,” Butler said. “When we think about the offensive end entirely too much that’s when we get down a lot.”

With Dwyane Wade, Butler and Rajon Rondo needing Mirotic to provide the necessary floor spacing to keep defenses honest, it means there’s more pressure on Hoiberg to stagger minutes and alter his rotations early in games.

Wade has shot the ball well in the preseason, but is a career 28-percent shooter from deep. Rondo shot 36.5 percent last season but like Wade, is at 28 percent for his career.

Butler is the best of the bunch, having shot 37.8 percent in 2014-15 but dipped to 31 percent last year, and is a 32.8 percent shooter for his career.

“We just have to step up, take them, shoot them with confidence like we do every day in practice,” Butler said. “I think we’ll be fine. As long as we’re guarding, the offense will take care of itself. We’re constantly in attack mode. There’s more than just shooting 3s.”

Which means a tough task just became all the more complicated. Hoiberg typically replaced Wade with McDermott midway through the first quarter and then brings Wade back to finish up in place of Butler.

More tinkering and some downright wizardry will have to be worked for things to go smoothly—but then again, it doesn’t have to be smooth to be effective.

“if we can things staggered it the right way---and we’ll continue to look at things---what you see on Thursday might not be what you see in the middle of the season,” Hoiberg said. “We have to start somewhere. We’re comfortable with the lineup and the rotation plan we have.”

CSN's Top 25 players in the NBA

CSN's Top 25 players in the NBA

No matter how much you rely on analytics and logarithms in determining who are the best players, ultimately it becomes about judgment.

Should win shares have a greater value than a player’s winning percentage in the playoffs? Is defensive rating a better barometer about a defender’s ability than say, defensive field goal percentage differential? And how much do you weigh how they fare versus playoff teams and non-playoff teams? A legitimate case can be made for all those numbers and many, many more, being used to rank the top 25 players.

Realizing such an endeavor should not be a one-person job, I enlisted the help of my fellow CSN Insiders, compiled our rankings and voila! We made a beautiful, bouncing list of more than two dozen players.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The scoring for this is pretty simple: Each Insider picked 25 players, ranking them from No. 1 through 25. Their number one pick received 25 points, No. 2 got 24, No. 3 got 23 and … you get the picture.

Without any further delay, here is the first annual CSN Top 25 NBA Players list in addition to our "others receiving votes" group.