Beyond the Arc: Bulls' playoff road gets tougher

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Beyond the Arc: Bulls' playoff road gets tougher

Wednesday, April 27, 2011Posted: 4:40 p.m.

By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Now that the Bulls have dispatched the pesky Pacers in five games, the real work begins. Whether its Orlando or Atlanta in the conference semi-finals, the Bulls will be severely tested, especially up front. How confident are you heading into Round 2? Please post your comments in the section below.

Right now, its all about getting healthy and working out some of the problems that surfaced during the Indiana series. Derrick Rose should be 100 percent healthy with five days to rest his sprained left ankle.

Now, the big concern is Carlos Boozer, whose overall play dropped off dramatically late in the season. Boozer hyperextended the big toe on his right foot in the Game 5 clinching win, and left the United Center in a walking boot. That type of injury is extremely painful and could be a lingering issue throughout the playoffs. Weve seen football players miss multiple games because of turf toe injuries, so lets hope Boozers strain is only a mild one.

The larger issue is trying to get the two-time All-Star more involved in the halfcourt offense. Boozer will have a size advantage over either Brandon Bass or Josh Smith in the next round, and the Bulls need to find a way to get him more touches deep in the post.

One idea would be to try to reverse the ball off the high screen and roll with Rose, allowing Boozer to post up his defender on the weak side without worrying about facing a quick double team. Boozer is at his best when he attacks quickly after receiving the ball, instead of backing his defender down and shooting a fallaway jumper. Getting some early baskets would give him a big confidence boost and probably pick up his activity on the defensive end as well.

One of the other big issues for the Bulls going forward is cutting down on turnovers. The number of total possessions normally drops in playoff games, which puts an even higher premium on valuing the basketball. The Bulls got careless at times against Indiana, and the Pacers were able to turn steals into easy baskets. Turning the ball over 15 to 20 times a game is a recipe for disaster against the teams remaining in the playoff field. The Bulls dominated the regular season series against Atlanta, but if they turn the ball over in the next round, the Hawks have athletes who can finish on the fastbreak like Smith, Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford.

If the Bulls draw Orlando in the next round, the obvious problem is trying to defend Dwight Howard in the post. Howard has enjoyed a lot of success against Joakim Noah in the past, and when teams double team Howard, they run the risk of getting burned by the Magics 3 point shooters. Orlando hasnt been getting consistent production from the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, but all are capable of turning in big scoring nights.

Bottom line, dont pencil the Bulls into the Eastern Conference Finals just yet. It was great to see them open Game 5 on a 12-2 run, then bury Indiana with a three-point barrage after things got close in the 3rd quarter. Hopefully, their poor shooting in the first four games of the Indiana series is gone and forgotten. After all, theyve got plenty of time to tune up for the next round.

What are your predictions for Round 2? Would you rather face Atlanta or Orlando? Please post your comments in the section below. Ill have a more detailed preview on Beyond the Arc when the Hawks-Magic series is decided.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNet Central, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10 p.m.

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

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USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

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USA TODAY

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