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Taj Gibson having the best run of his career
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 7
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Bulls forward Taj Gibson is known around the team, at least to his buddy Joakim Noah, as Tagy-woo.
But around the NBA these days it’s been Tagy-Wow!
The fifth-year forward is off to the best start of his career, and he’ll need to continue that as the Bulls Saturday face one of the top young front lines in the NBA in the Pistons’ Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith.
“This year I have a clear mind, focus,” says Gibson. “I just want to help my team.”
Gibson has been helping quite a bit, especially of late in the best stretch of his career.
Gibson has set career highs twice in the last four games, which started with Gibson’s first career game, 23 points in the Bulls’ 99-79 win in Detroit last week, the only victory on the nearly two week November trip.
Gibson followed that with 18 points in just 24 minutes, shooting seven of 10 in the loss in Cleveland. Then it was yet another career high with 26 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in the double overtime loss to the Jazz Monday. The Bulls recovered with a big win over the Miami Heat Thursday. Gibson was as big as any with 19 points on eight of 12 shooting. But it was Gibson who came up biggest when the Heat turned a 25-deficit into 12 with just under six minutes left.
Gibson hit a baseline 13-footer as his jump shot is much improved this season. But then his defensive aggression again was vital in a game in which he often was guarding LeBron James.
Gibson blocked a Udonis Haslem drive and after a Noah miss, Gibson went up between several Heat players to snatch a key rebound that led to a Luol Deng three that effectively closed the game.
“Taj gotten stronger; he’s a better player,” said Deng. “He’s more mature with his work ethic. He’s always worked hard, but it hasn’t been as consistent.
“You go to the gym and Taj is always in there,” said Deng. “Coach is one of those guys who rewards everyone for how hard they work. If you work hard he’ll never be upset, run plays for you. Now Taj is a great option for the second unit. A lot of times he’ll have a mismatch in there and we’re recognizing it and looking for him.”
Gibson not only has become the Bulls best player off the bench, he has been the team’s most powerful force in the post. He’s fought to get deep position and has made strong moves to the basket. His game has routinely been the most physical among the team’s big men with a strong defensive component that has enabled him to switch on pick and roll coverages to adequately defend some of the best scorers in the game.
It’s the unique element of the Bulls defense that no coaching system could create. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has among the best defensive schemes in the NBA. But it’s a luxury to have mobile big men like Noah and Gibson who can switch onto guards and keep them in front and not compromise the defensive plan. There are few teams that can do so, and ever rarer with players that big.
Gibson is having his career statistical season as well.
He’s averaging a career-high 11.9 points, fourth on the team. He’s also fourth in rebounding at 6.5, first in blocks at 1.2 and best in shooting at 49.7 percent even as he’s eighth on the team in minutes played.
And Gibson is in his best stretch now, averaging in the last four games 21.5 points, eight rebounds and 1.75 blocks on 66 percent shooting
Though Gibson’s play has been impressive off the bench, the competition among sixth man candidates is intense with the likes of Jamal Crawford, Ryan Anderson, Dion Waiters, Rodney Stuckey and Reggie Jackson. But Gibson certainly is in the discussion.
“It is all about confidence in this league,” said Gibson. “If you have confidence, anything is possible. I have my teammates behind me and they believe in me. They keep telling me to shoot. Kirk (Hinrich) and the rest of the guys keep looking for me. I just try to help guys get open and they have been finding me.”
But Gibson also has found himself, which seems to be making the difference.
Gibson had probably his poorest season as a pro last season.
He averaged eight points and 5.3 rebounds, the rebounds equaling a career low. His 6.5 points and three rebounds per game in the playoffs were the poorest playoff performance in his four seasons.
And this after signing a $33 million, four-year contract extension before the season. Gibson agonized about what to do, eventually agreeing to the deal moments before the preseason deadline.
But the weight of responsibility seemed to overcome Gibson, whose shooting and overall game suffered. It appeared the Bulls had made a fatal mistake.
But Gibson, 28, from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn was accustomed to being the underdog. He was a low, 26th pick in the 2009 draft.
Gibson was generally regarded as a bit too short for power forward and a bit thin, a slightly built 6-8 or maybe 6-9. But he proved tough to remove.
As a rookie, he became a starter when Tyrus Thomas was hurt early in the season. He never surrendered the job, starting 70 games, making the all-rookie team and averaging nine points and 7.5 rebounds.
But the Bulls were looking for a scoring power forward in that 2010 free agent class and signed Carlos Boozer. Gibson was to be back on the bench. But Boozer was hurt in training camp and Gibson opened the season as a starter. Gibson had a big first month with Boozer out. And even as Boozer returned, Gibson often finished games because of his defense and had big plays in the playoffs, including a memorable slam dunk on Dwyane Wade in the conference finals.
Gibson’s even become one of the NBA powerful dunkers, especially on putbacks in traffic as he had a famous one over Kris Humphries and also in that 2011 conference finals. Gibson also had a beauty in the face of Timofey Mozgov after an offensive rebound in Denver earlier this season. Gibson’s ferocity in the paint has been an energizing force for the Bulls.
But Gibson had some late season knee injury issues before the 2012 playoffs, which were much forgotten about as Derrick Rose then suffered his serious knee injury in the first game of the playoffs. Though the Bulls had a rewarding 2012-13 season given the circumstances of Rose’s absence, Gibson again was hurt late and appeared to regress on offense and defense. His name, Taj, means a crown or an exalted status. And uneasy was this head of Taj.
Gibson became determined to change all that and forgot about contracts and off court stuff to concentrate on court improvement.
“A lot of people have asked me that,” Gibson said about struggling through last season. “I don’t know. It was a mixture of things. But that is part of being a pro. You’ve got to leave things off your chest.
I learned that from Carlos and Joakim, and the person really talking to me has been Thibs.
Everything he’s said is going to happen, has happened. He said he wanted me to work on my game, get stronger, have a great summer.
“Unfortunately I had to miss USA camp,” said Gibson, who got an invite to the futures minicamp, but sprained an ankle in workouts. “He said I would have had a great USA camp. I was (upset), but I came back, rehabbed. And being around Derrick motivated me more. Then Thibs kept talking to me, telling me. He said to get in the post, that he really wanted to go to me in the post, that I have a lot of good post moves. He said to have a great training camp: ‘No more contract stuff, that is all behind you. Have a great training camp, great preseason and have fun.’ And it’s seemed like it’s been like that.”
Gibson is probably Thibodeau’s biggest supporter on the team, seeing the coach as mentor as well.
Gibson is one of the players’ and media’s favorites. He’s a hard worker with an easy going manner. He always accommodates media being the first player available for interviews after games, win or loss. He understands the demands some have on time and is especially gracious. He never turns down anyone and is unselfish with his time.
He’s got an easy laugh and quick smile and takes the ribbing of teammates with good nature. He’s not much to deliver the barbs, but seems to accept being the target with good humor.
But he’s serious about his game and grateful to be with the Bulls.
“My first couple of years were great,” says Gibson. “Got to the Eastern Conference finals, got to play with Omer (Asik), a great group of guys and (the team) got better. Got to start my rookie year. Got to start over Carlos when Carlos was hurt my sophomore year. Everything was positive, first team all rookie, Eastern Conference finals.
“I felt last year was one of my hardest times with having to deal with so much off the court, as far as the business of the NBA,” said Gibson.
But the summer of work began to show quickly with a strong preseason in which Gibson averaged 12.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 28 minutes and stood out among his teammates even as the attention was on the return of Rose. Gibson continued to show strong inside moves as well as an improved jump shot, the elements of being a starting power forward in the NBA.
“Thibs always said he wanted to get me the ball more in post, always said that,” related Gibson. “I’m taking my time, putting in the work, staying late, there the crack of dawn working on my game with (assistant coach) Mike Wilhelm. It’s paying off. Just trying to do my job, bring energy, be aggressive.”