Taj Gibson putting on a happy face


Feb 8

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You may be able to find happier people than Taj Gibson.

Perhaps someone sitting in their Redondo Beach condo facing the ocean and the beach volleyball players in February. Maybe a mother holding her baby for the first time. Maybe Thibs with game tapes and an empty Berto Center.

But there aren’t many beaming these days quite like Gibson, who figures to be back in the starting lineup Sunday when the Bulls face the Los Angeles Lakers to close their six-game Western Conference road trip.

The Bulls are looking for a win to finish the trip 3-3 and get back to .500 for the season.

“Thibs and the coaching staff keep me on edge,” Gibson was saying about the demands he’s embracing this season. “I’m just having fun. This year I’m really having a lot of fun, just trying to find ways to score and it’s great.”

“Thibs and the coaching staff keep me on edge,” Gibson was saying about the demands he’s embracing this season. “I’m just having fun. This year I’m really having a lot of fun, just trying to find ways to score and it’s great.”

“Every time I score I’m just smiling because I can’t believe half the things I’m doing,” Gibson said at Bulls practice Saturday before taking in his alma mater USC hosting UCLA in the local rivalry game. “It’s all good things. I’m having a lot of fun. That’s the main thing.”

Did Taj, by the way, mention he’s having fun this season?

“Thibs and the coaching staff keep me on edge,” Gibson was saying about the demands he’s embracing this season. “I’m just having fun. This year I’m really having a lot of fun, just trying to find ways to score and it’s great.”

And about any recognition coming for his best season as a pro, well, Gibson said, “I’m just having fun and trying to help our team win. There’s never a down time. I’m always learning and trying to get wins.”

And in case you didn’t know, Taj is enjoying himself.

And the Bulls are feeling some pride as well after agreeing with Gibson at the last moment last season on a four-year contract extension and then watching Gibson have his poorest overall season as a pro. But Gibson has rewarded the Bulls faith and more this season with a breakout year in which he’s become the team’s strongest post option, a consistent scorer when given the opportunity, a media go to interview and a personality to match his playing passion.

Did I hear him whistling, “You got a friend in me?” And “Good Day Sunshine?”

“Obviously, Jo (Noah) has gone to a different level,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of the up coming second time All-Star. “Taj has gone to a different level. And I think Jimmy (Butler) is really coming right now.”

Though perhaps no one more than Gibson, who is averaging a career best 12.5 points per game along with 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

Gibson likely will start Sunday with Carlos Boozer still bothered by a calf injury.

Thibodeau talked to reporters before practice Saturday. He said Boozer wouldn’t do much in practice, which suggested he’d probably remain out after missing the Golden State game when he aggravated the previous injury during warmups.

“Still a little sore,” Thibodeau said. “Very limited (in practice). I don’t think he’ll do much. Day to day. We’ll just see where he is. The last time he wasn’t out long, but we’ll see. Just one of those things. Things happen. They happen.”

Thibodeau also said little used Tornike Shengalia left the team for a death in his family. Thobodeau said thus there are no plans now to have Erik Murphy play in the D-League because of the limited roster. With Boozer out, the Bulls have nine healthy players for the game with the Lakers, including Murphy and Nazr Mohammed. The roster also includes Derrick Rose and is at 12 with Shengalia. The Bulls have about another week to add a minimum required 13th player.

Though it’s also a beaten up Lakers team that had to have an extra player on the court last week in Cleveland as with injuries and foul outs they were down to four. Kobe Bryant, Paul Gasol and Nick Young all are out with injuries. Jodie Meeks could return from an ankle sprain and they recently got back Steve Nash from missing most of the season, though he always is day to day with chronic back injuries.

But amidst all the hardships facing the Bulls, one of the big bright spots has been the play of Gibson.

He is averaging 18.7 points and 10 rebounds in his six games as a starter. In his five games starting as a power forward playing with Noah, he is averaging 20.4 points and 10.1 rebounds. And now with his offensive confidence, Gibson said he can see himself as a 20/10 type of player moving forward.

“I feel if I have the opportunity I can get 20/10 a lot, most every night or a double/double,” said Gibson, who is coming off matching his career high with 26 points for the third time this season in the loss in Golden State. “It’s not hard, I don’t think, if you get the right amount of minutes and right amount of attempts. When you are on the bench for so long, when you get those attempts it’s mind blowing. If you get the opportunity and the right team around you anything is possible.”

It didn’t seem so for Gibson as he struggled through last season after signing his four-year extension minutes before the deadline. He was torn between going to free agency and perhaps a bigger deal or getting the security in case of injury as he’d seen the serious injury to Rose. Gibson appropriately went for the security of the $33 million deal. But then given his high level of character, he felt he had to live up to the confidence the Bulls showed in him. And in trying to please too much he was tentative and inconsistent.

“Part of it, in hindsight, is probably the contract itself,” agreed Thibodeau. “As much as you try to block it out, it ran right up into the season. Then I think he was somewhat distracted starting the season. He didn’t get off to as a good a start as we would’ve liked. He had a stretch where he was really playing well right before he got hurt in Oklahoma City. And that was midway through the season. It was an up and down year for him. He went into the summer with a clear head. He wanted to get off to a great start, so I thought he prepared himself well. And he has just continued on from the start of the season all the way through.”

It was obvious from the start of the season as Gibson was the most aggressive player in preseason while Thibodeau constantly raved about Gibson’s practice habits as a model for others.

Gibson also developed his post up moves. And while teams on occasion have anticipated where he would spin and brought help, he continues to refine his play and also goes to the basket stronger than anyone on the team. Plus, he’s a rim protector with his blocking and with Noah one of the reasons the Bulls are able to have such a high level offense. Noah and Gibson are rare big men who can switch pick and roll plays and be effective against small, quick guards. It’s one of the true secrets to the Bulls defensive success.

It’s why it’s ludicrous at times to hear suggestions or alleged rumors the Bulls are looking to trade Gibson. Nothing could be further from the truth. Boozer is going into the last season on his contract. This is the last summer the Bulls can use amnesty for his contract. Could the Bulls afford to lose their two highest scoring and most effective interior postup big men? For years, the demand for the Bulls was to get a postup big man who was a 20 and 10 threat. Now you are going to get rid of both? Hardly makes sense.

Especially with Gibson having the kind of season that Thibodeau says should draw league wide attention.

“You could pick all-defense, Sixth Man, Most Improved,” said Thibodeau. “I think he has made that case by his actions and what he’s done, the way he’s performed. He’s invaluable to us. And just the way he works. He’s by far our best practice player. He worked extremely hard this summer. We have a lot of confidence in him. And I still think there’s room for growth for him.”

Which would be awfully nice for the Bulls as well.

“I just feel extremely confident in my game,” said Gibson. “As far as the post, I feel like I always have a good shot at getting a bucket because I really take time and work on my footwork. Teams are trying to do different things to try to slow me down and I’m just adjusting.

“A great player like Ed Pinckney told me when you are in the zone sometimes you don’t think about who is guarding you, you just go,” said Gibson, who is so happy he’s bestowing greatness on all around him. “That’s the way I’m feeling right now. I don’t even think about who is guarding me. I just go and I’m playing with a good amount of confidence.

“I feel I made some kind of jump,” Gibson agreed. “I always wanted to just improve myself offensively, but first off be one of those guys off the bench that can score. It’s tough to come off the bench. But if you can come off the bench and provide for your team and help, that’s what I want to do.

“I’ve been learning a lot,” said Gibson. ”I never thought of the NBA schemes and how they play you, how they double team you. My first year (starting for Tyrus Thomas), I really didn’t understand it. I thought about it as trying to help my team and learn how to play with different guys. As the years went on, I got stronger and I got better. I got to understand how to pick my (spots) and things like that. It’s all about just knowing where you can get your spots and being a lot more physical.

“Our team with Joakim and different guys like that you are going to get offensive rebounds, extra putbacks,” said Gibson. “Plus being around Carlos, I’ve been studying him the last three and a half years. So I’ve been learning from some of the best. I really haven’t heard anything (about awards). I hopefully would like to be thought of as a sixth man, most improved. I would love to be picked as a sixth man. That would be a great.

“I’m a defensive first kind of guy,” reminded Gibson. “I’ll pass up a shot to give someone else it as long as we win the game, as long as we get a stop on defense. That’s the kind of player I am, unselfish. I remember Derrick said some people don’t know how good they are. Joakim’s been on me from day one, ‘You can handle the ball, you can handle the ball.’ Sometimes you shy away because you don’t want Thibs to yell at you; you don’t want to mess up. But I work on all these things on a daily basis. I’m in the gym from the top of the morning to late at night. It’s all about guys putting the work in and using it in the game. I’m having fun.”

You’d have never guessed.

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