"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."