No one’s calling it Tajy-woo ball, but that’s also what it is. Throwing ahead, running the court, passing and finishing strong. It’s the way Taj Gibson learned to play, loved to play, got himself drafted into the NBA. It just wasn’t the way his team was playing, more half court, more deliberate. So he learned, he adapted, he excelled as much as he could in his role. He sacrificed for his team. It’s his way. So it’s no coincidence Gibson is off to the best start of his career in the Bulls 3-0 start and is the ideal fit with his new teammates.
“I can adapt,” Gibson was saying Tuesday as the Bulls prepared for Wednesday’s rematch with the Boston Celtics. “I sacrificed a lot for the team early in my career as far as my game trying to compete for championships; none of this stuff is new to me. I feel I can play at the top level of this NBA. It’s mostly about confidence. I’m just going out there having fun. This job is a dream come true and it’s fun to me. Why not go out there and give 110 percent every day of my life while I’m still in it for this short span of time?
“We’ve got a good group of guys,” said Gibson. “Everybody is cool, easy going, real unselfish. You see we are high in assists, we push the ball, athletic, my kind of basketball. With Thibs (former coach Tom Thibodeau) we mostly got used to playing half court basketball. I really wasn’t used to that coming out of college (at USC). On the West Coast, we played more of an up and down kind of get out and run and be athletic kind of game. So when I came to the Bulls it was more half court with Thibs. I had to learn that, but Thibs helped my back to the basket game, helped me understand play calling and now with Fred (Hoiberg) it’s even more fun because we just get the ball out and run. You see one or two passes and we get a bucket. This offense is real fun for me and I fit the offense real well.
It’s sort of the Taj Gibson anthem, the man who has shifted from starting to the bench and back. Forget about yourself and give what you have. Gibson will be overlooked at times with stars like Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo and all the talk of a high powered offense. But perhaps as big a surprise has been the play of Gibson, not even penciled in as a starter before training camp.
But Gibson has been the team’s most consistent player from the first day of training camp. He’s now averaging 14.7 points, behind only Wade and Butler, leading the team at 9.7 rebounds per game and shooting an astounding 63.6 percent, many on face up jumpers. He’s been as reliable as a metronome and music to the ears of his coaches and teammates.
The Bulls got some discouraging news Tuesday with word the MRI for Michael Carter-Williams showed a bone bruise that could keep him out four to six weeks. Also, Doug McDermott was undergoing the league concussion review after being smacked in the face twice by Luis Scola during the Monday win over the Nets. The Bulls hope McDermott will be ready for Wednesday.
But it’s been Gibson who has been ready and as much as anyone welcoming the team’s advanced style of play. It’s featured Rondo and Wade twirling the ball around and Butler finishing. But Gibson has been crucial in a 16 rebound per game margin in starting fast breaks and running a deft pick and roll with Wade.
It’s been a long time coming for the veteran pro who has had the most positive attitude among all the players through the last eight years, a media darling as the guy who always was there no matter how uncomfortable the day or game was. But that’s Gibson, perhaps the epitome of the teammate. Certainly not the most spectacular or productive, but who represents the culture the Bulls most want to exhibit.
“I didn’t really care too much (about being a starter), to be honest with you because I know what I can do whether I start or not,” Gibson said after practice Tuesday, his knees wrapped in protective ice bags. “It doesn’t define me as a player if I’m a starter. I’m going to go out there and do my job, play for my teammates and play for the organization. Just continue to do what’s right for the team, stay within my box, take my shots when I’m open, encourage my teammates and always be positive.
“I don’t know how much I can express the positivity you have in here (now), he said. “Every day is smiles and laughter and encouragement; you never know who will have the hot night, but you understand our principles and just try to get the win. The more we win the more everyone gets a good piece of the pie.”
Butler agreed and added how much he’s enjoyed the system of play as well and Hoiberg.
“I look at him a lot differently,” Butler admitted. “It seems like he knows his guys a lot better now. Look at him joke around with us, throwing the football (after practice); it’s the littlest things that go the longest. Now we know that he’s in the fight with us, he’s one of us. Maybe I judged somebody too quickly last year, but I know he’s here, he’s working, and that’s all you can ask.”
Gibson is always working and ironically, he says with a laugh, it was one of the team’s greatest tormenters who became an inspiration.
“Kevin Garnett used to always tell me to be patient, your time is going to come, keep doing what you have to do, be a pro, a professional, and that’s been my motto,” said Gibson. “No matter what my position is, what the team wants me to do, what my coach wants me to do, my job is to go out there and win games, try to help my coach win games and at the same time make myself (effective) by doing the things he wants me to do.”
Kevin Garnett? Trash talking, cheap shot Kevin Garnett?
“It was funny with Garnett because of those years we were beefing with them,” recalled Gibson. “Once you come on the Bulls team their beef becomes my beef. You’d never know what he was going to call you on the court. It shocked me (when I started). I was, Man, this guy I’ve been looking up to a long time. Now I finally get a chance to play him and the first word out of his mouth is: ‘You soft! You ain’t nothin’.’ And you’re like, man, like watching Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen your whole life and the first words they say to you are you suck. You’re like ‘What!’ it crushes you. But it was great, it was a learning experience.
“I kind of disliked him for awhile and then I met him in California working out and we were playing pickup and he was a super cool dude,” said Gibson. “He showed me respect. After the game he’d say, ‘I’ll see you man.’ I’d talk to him when we played the Celtics and he’d always say, ‘What’s up?’ He was, ‘I’ll see you man, stay patient, it will come.’ I respected him, but I wanted to match his intensity and effort. Competing against him and how he talked trash I hated him, but then that summer I realized he was a cool dude; off the court he’s a real good dude and he gave me encouragement.”
Gibson needed it mostly with ankle surgery after the 2014-15 season. He’d barely missed out on the Sixth Man award. His game suffered the next season as he played all season through the injury and pain; doctors warned him, but he said his team needed him. So last summer he trained with Butler before Butler went to the Olympics. He constantly ran the sand dunes in Los Angeles and has come into the season as lively as he’s been in years.
“It’s the drive to do good, the drive to compete, to be looked at one of those players to play in the NBA a long time,” says Gibson. “I take pride in trying to win games. When people say my name that he was a tough mother, that’s the kind of stories I want to hear when I have kids. It comes down with this team guys believing in the system, guys wanting to win, to prove people wrong. But we haven’t even scratched the surface. We have a lot to improve on. Now especially with Michael getting hurt, that’s a big blow to us. But we have a lot of weapons. We’re not even hot yet. We’re just playing for each other now.”