WASHINGTON—It might have occurred in a defeat, one which put his team on the brink of elimination, but Taj Gibson’s career-high 32-point effort in the Bulls’ 98-89 loss to the Wizards at the Verizon Center in Game 4 of the two teams’ first-round playoff series showed that the best is yet to come.
“Yeah, he’s just tremendous. The people that have seen him play all year, there’s an understanding of how good he is, but he’s great with his preparation,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau gushed about his sixth man, who had a 20-point first half, comprising half of the Bulls’ overall point total, and made his first nine shot attempts from the field. “You walk into the ballroom in the morning for an early start, he’s already done all of his work. You can see the concentration there, you can see the readiness to play. Practice [Saturday], he’s there early, stays late, so it’s not surprising he’s played this way, and that’s why he’s had the season that he’s had. And I think there’s a lot of room for growth, too. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get the win, but he does his job. You can count on that guy every single day.”
While Thibodeau, as competitive as he is, could take some solace in his prized pupil showing up on the big stage, Gibson himself took his big game in stride.
“Well, I don’t look at the points or anything like that. It always comes down to looking at W’s and L’s, wins and losses. That game, just because I scored, it’s behind me. Got to move on to the next one. I was frustrated. I could have rebounded the ball a lot better, could have done a lot of other things—help-side defense, switching, fouling at the right time,” he explained. “I just felt like we weren’t in sync, but it’s part of the game. But when we started the game out and put yourself in a big hole, it’s hard, especially when you’re using all your energy just to get back in the hunt. We kept trying to cut it within five, cut it to 10 and they kept resting their guys, and their bench played a great role. Booker did a great job starting for them and that’s what it takes, and we’ve just got to come back, bounce back.”
That team-first mentality has been a constant throughout Gibson’s five-year NBA career, but now he combines it with the confidence and offensive arsenal to be more than just a hard-working, energetic role player. Some of his development as a scorer came about because of the Bulls’ scoring issues, but Gibson has evolved into a polished back-to-the-basket scorer requiring a double-team when he gets going, as well as a competent mid-range jump-shooter, to go along with his athleticism, the willingness to mix it up on the interior, versatile and intelligent defense, ability to run the floor in transition and rebounding prowess.
Due to the fact that the Bulls were only truly competitive Sunday when Gibson was in the contest, it would seem that Thibodeau has no option but to further minimize starting power forward Carlos Boozer in order to maximize his sixth man’s minutes, contradicting the theory previously held in the series, that playing Boozer more for his scoring ability could help spark the Bulls.
At this point, it’s evident that either Thibodeau is only now fully assessing Boozer’s defensive issues or there’s something personal going on behind the scenes, as in fairness to the much-maligned veteran, the increasingly short leash he has on the court shouldn’t be expected to exactly inspire much confidence. Boozer has remained a good teammate, but his lack of productivity in the series—most evident by his five fouls, all in the third quarter—means something has to give, even if the coach won’t acknowledge it publicly.
“As I told you before, you can’t put it on any one guy. It’s our team. Readiness to play is me. They have to do their job. They have to get out there, they have to execute,” Thibodeau explained. “I’ve got to have them ready and so, that’s disappointing and it’s got to change. It’s got to change or our season will be over.”
When asked if he believed something was “off” about his teammate’s postseason performance, Gibson diplomatically added: “I don’t think so. Like the previous game before tonight, I thought that he had a great game. At times, you just need to take your normal looks. He’s been taking his normal looks. In the playoffs, teams kind of zoom in on what you do, but I think he’s just got to work his way out of it. We said the same thing about Mike [Dunleavy] early in the year when he couldn’t hit his shot. In the playoffs, you just have to put more effort in, watch some more film. We’re a family. If one guy slacks off, we just have to pick him up. He’s a pro, he’s an All-Star, so we’re not worried about him.”
Again, that all-for-one, one-for-all way of thinking is what has endeared Gibson to the Bulls as an organization, Chicago as a city and as his profile grows bigger with big game after big game, the league as a whole—perhaps even more so if he wins the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, which conceivably be presented to him before Tuesday night’s Game 5 at the United Center, potentially the last opportunity to do so before a Bulls’ home game—in this breakout campaign. Just as the writing is on the wall in regards to Boozer’s future in Chicago, it’s no longer just a whisper when it comes to Gibson moving forward.
No, he won’t score 32 points on a nightly basis, but the way he’s played in a still-limited role, with opposing defenses geared to stop him as a focal point on a team that struggles to produce points, coupled with his consistent contributions on the defensive end, bodes well for next season and beyond.