Though they miss the weather on the West Coast, the Bulls were all smiles Tuesday afternoon talking about returning to Chicago and the United Center, where they’ll square off against the Atlanta Hawks tonight.
“Feels good to be back in Chicago, in front of the home fans,” Jimmy Butler said. “I wouldn’t say in this weather, but I definitely miss these fans. You start to love the Midwest, but goodness gracious, it’s too cold.”
The Bulls last played at home on Jan. 27, a 95-86 loss to Kevin Love and the Timberwolves, a span of 15 days that took them to four different states to play six road contests. The Bulls went 3-3 on their second-longest road trip of the year, including impressive wins over the Suns and Lakers (with a loss at Golden State sandwiched in between) to finish the trip.
Now they’re back at the United Center, where they haven’t won since Jan. 20, with losses to the aforementioned Timberwolves and the Clippers hanging over them. For Tom Thibodeau, returning home is nice for a team that has been gone two weeks, but it’s important to come out with the right attitude in front of the home crowd.
“Always good to be home, but we have to give our fans something to cheer about,” he said. “We have great support and we appreciate their support, but that doesn’t change what you have to do to get ready to play, and then when you’re out there.”
One player Thibodeau hasn’t had to worry about being ready to play is forward Taj Gibson. The Bulls’ sixth man continued his recent tear on the road trip, averaging 15.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists to go with 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals in 32 minutes per game. The stat-stuffing trip included starts in the final two games in place of Carlos Boozer – who is a game-time decision Tuesday night – where Gibson averaged 22 points and 9.5 rebounds, including tying his career-high with 26 points in Thursday’s loss to the Warriors.
“Taj has had a terrific year, so whatever we ask him to do he does,” Thibodeau said. “You can play him short minutes, long minutes, doesn’t matter; start him, finish with him, play multiple positions, does whatever you ask. He’s a total team guy.
If Boozer can’t go, Gibson will get his third straight start. In seven starts this year, Gibson has averaged 18.6 points and 9.4 rebounds. One of those came against Atlanta on Jan. 4, when Gibson double-doubled with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Though the Bulls can see the All-Star Break just a stone’s throw away, Butler said the team isn’t resting on a successful road trip to allow them to coast into the break, which begins after Thursday’s home contest against the Brooklyn Nets.
“Feel good about it. Three wins on the road, you’ve got to take that,”said Butler, who averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 rebounds on the trip, “and I think we’re building, starting to roll together and we need these last two before the break.”
A key to the Bulls’ success before All-Star weekend will be the only player whose schedule will be packed over the break.
Joakim Noah will play in his second straight All-Star Game on Sunday, and though he’s excited both to be home and playing in front of the home crowd tonight, he understands better than anyone that there’s still work to be done before he heads to New Orleans for the exhibition.
“We’re excited to play in front of our home court, we haven’t played here in a while, and it’ll be a good game. We’ve got to take care of our business tonight,” he said. “I think just focusing on the moment, taking it game-by-game, not worried about distractions or what anyone has to say. Just focusing on our improvement.”