ST. LOUIS—Don’t expect Taj Gibson to duplicate his 18-point, 12-rebound, three-blocked shot outing he had in the Bulls’ preseason-opening win Saturday on a nightly basis, at least not from a pure numbers perspective.
His team is too deep and too talented to expect the backup big man to do that on a regular basis. But after an uneven campaign, affected by injuries and the negotiations of a long-term contract extension at the outset of the season, do expect Gibson to be a more consistent player, more reminiscent of the player Bulls fans have grown to love because of his high-energy athleticism and defensive prowess.
“I feel like I played well. I still averaged the same numbers I had the previous year, same amount of minutes,” Gibson said of his 2012-13 season, following his stellar effort against the Pacers, which partially stole the show from teammate Derrick Rose’s comeback. “I don’t really think about what the outside world says. I think about what my coaching staff thinks, what we think about in the locker room and Thibs said, ‘You had an up-and-down year. Injuries kind of affected your year, but at one point, you were on the [upswing] and the injury kind of affected. But you played through the injury. You’ve just got to take that on the chin, learn from that and come back strong next year.’
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“It was hard. I just tried to play through it. It was the fact that I was trying to heal myself instead of just working in the gym, getting shots [up]. It was rough. You have the balance the two. But it’s no excuses. I had a strong summer and I’m ready this year,” he went on to explain, referring to his injury-riddled campaign of a year ago, in which he dealt with the effects of a lingering MCL sprain. “I just got stronger over the summer and that’s the biggest thing, just getting stronger."
Gibson wasn’t able to participate in USA Basketball’s Select Team mini-camp in July, something he did a year ago, due to an ankle injury before the gathering, which was partly overseen by Thibodeau, a national team assistant coach. But while he was sidelined, he focused on adding bulk to his frame, as well as extending the range on his jumper. Although Gibson didn’t launch any threes in the win over the Central Division rival Pacers, he looked confident in knocking down mid-range jumpers, as well as maneuvering in the post, in helping the Bulls’ second unit hold off a charge from Indiana’s regulars to preserve the 82-76 victory.
“I’m just taking my time. I already have good footwork. It’s about just going out there with the lights on, just taking my time and having fun, and Thibs coming to me,” he said of developing his offensive game to match his upper-echelon defense. “It’s good to have Derrick back and it kind of opens up the floor. ‘Captain Kirk’ [Hinrich] is in the second unit with me, I’m real comfortable with him and I’ve been shooting the ball well. I got a lot of shots up this summer, but the main thing was just getting stronger.
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“Just being in the playoffs, how physical it is, I just dedicated my summer to getting stronger, working on my jump shot and [Bulls assistant general manager] Randy Brown has been telling, ‘Just keep shooting that jumper,’ and Coach Mike [Wilhelm, a Bulls assistant] and Coach Thibs believe in me.”
Thibodeau praised Gibson’s performance, in addition to Wilhelm’s individual work with him.
“Taj was terrific throughout. He feels good about where he is. Mike Wilhelm has done a terrific job with him. He has watched a lot of film. He has put a lot of work in before and after practice. I think Taj feels good about how he’s preparing each day,” the coach said.
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It also helps that Gibson, after a year of having all new teammates with him on the second unit, can settle into his role, surrounded by capable veterans like Hinrich, experienced newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. and backup center Nazr Mohammed, while also playing with the Bulls starters when he fills in for post players Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. So while leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks every night might not be in the cards for Gibson, making a big impact on both ends should be a normal occurrence.