Usually it’s Stick-stickety for the Bulls who has to explain and cajole to Taj-e-woo, the MVP candidate and multiple All-Star working with the perennial sixth man.
But this time as the Bulls Saturday prepare to play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the United Center, it’s Taj Gibson who is wooing and working with and explaining the subtleties to Joakim Noah in hopes they stick. Without them being too sticky.
Because Taj knows the bench, and Jo Stick-stickety doesn’t.
It’s not as easy as it seems or sounds, ego or otherwise.
“When you come off the bench you’ve got see the game,” Gibson was saying late after Thursday’s Bulls 104-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Derrick Rose with 29 points and Jimmy Butler with 26 and defense against Kevin Durant were the stars; Pau Gasol was the only other Bulls player to score in double figures, and he closed the game playing pick and roll with Rose.
Noah and Gibson watched, cheered and urged.
But they had done their jobs, providing the defense and hustle that turned around an early nine-point Bulls deficit. They had the best plus/minus floor ratings of any of the Bulls, Noah at plus-16 when he was on the floor and Gibson at plus-14.
Their statistics didn’t stand out, four points, seven rebounds and four assists for Noah in 26 minutes; nine points, four rebounds and three assists for Gibson in 22 minutes.
No one talked about them on TV. But the Bulls don’t win the game without them and particularly their inspiring efforts. When a player does it coming off the bench it’s often lost in the anonymity of their position, supporting roles. It’s been basically Gibson’s seven-season Bulls career except for unexpectedly starting as a rookie. It’s new for Noah, an All-Star and league MVP contender less than two years ago. It’s also been a process for Noah both to accept and embrace his new role after basically starting every season as he enters his ninth with the Bulls.
Noah said he does what’s best for the team. But everyone wants to start.
It’s most difficult when you always did, and Noah hasn’t been as outwardly ebullient this season before Thursday’s win. Though he also had a tough season last year after knee surgery. So Gibson said they’ve been talking. And this time Taj was the instructor.
“One thing about coming off the bench in my career, playing sixth man, you’ve got watch and understand what you to do when you come in right away,” said Gibson. “You have to bring the energy, bring some kind of effort to what the team needs; if it’s defense, if it’s offense, you just have to be ready.
“I told him he just has to be ready,” related Gibson. “He has to come in the game and be aggressive. When you are coming off the bench you have to get your blood flowing because it’s tough. People don’t understand how tough it is coming off the bench. You come off the bench you are stiff. You’re completely stiff and everyone else is warm. They’re coming right at you so you have to be aggressive when you come in the game. You have to be that guy, bring the energy. He is slowly understanding it. I think he is doing a good job.”
Noah was terrific in the Thunder win.
But it’s become one of the evolving questions with the change in coaching to Fred Hoiberg.
The Bulls began the season with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic starting and Noah backing up Gasol. Tony Snell started at small forward until Doug McDermott got his first start Thursday. Hoiberg said changes can and will be made again as the season progresses. And surely they will as Hoiberg has used a variety of changing rotations in the 4-2 start according to matchups.
But starting also is something of distinction in the NBA; those are the players introduced who are greeted by their teammates in a sort of ritual like sending warriors to battle for them. Everyone wants to be the first warrior.
But the Bulls are a deep team with players in reserve like Noah and Gibson, who could start for other teams.
So Noah was selected for the sacrifice. It’s been almost his Bulls business card.
Perhaps it becomes Gasol off the bench some time, though the accepted NBA strategy generally is you get less off the bench from the older player because he takes longer to get in the flow of the game. Last season, Gasol and Noah started, Noah at power forward. But Hoiberg wants to play a faster game with more three-point shooting. So he chose Mirotic, a good shooter, at power forward for Noah. Though Gasol and Noah have played together on occasion. Gasol is averaging about 29 minutes per game and Noah about 20.
And all this while Hoiberg implements a different theory, if not style of play, both on offense and defense.
“It’s a different system we’re playing,” noted Gibson. “This is more guys playing freely, just getting up shots. Sometimes it may be one pass, shot; you have to get back into it. Last year it was pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and then maybe a shot. It’s going to take time. Joakim is trying to get everything back in perspective coming off the bench. I’m figuring out how to get my ankle loose under me again, get my wind back up. So it’s going to take time, but the emotion and energy are going to be there.
“I feel great,” Gibson said, practically forgotten that he is coming off ankle surgery playing about 19 minutes per game, a career low. “It’s a new ankle, basically. My body feels great. I was telling Derrick before the game it’s going to come. I’ve got to keep working, putting more time into the practice. He said it’s one of those things coming back from injury; it’s going to take time. You’ve got to keep putting the quarters in the bank, keep working hard in practice, staying late. That’s what I’ve been doing. But I’ll get there.
“I’m still trying to figure out different roles,” Gibson acknowledged. “Every game is something new; I have to be ready. My body feels great. I feel as strong as I’ve ever been. But still trying to figure out the system, where guys want the ball. I’m just trying to weather the storm.
“You are going from an offense where guys were timid,” said Gibson. “Guys didn’t take the shots they are taking this year. Now you have guys coming down with this fast pace. He wants us to be aggressive; he doesn’t care if it’s one shot, pass: Get it up, take your shots, take your looks. Everybody is just firing away. At times it’s overwhelming; at times it’s fun.
“You have to get accustomed to it,” said Gibson. “I’m still getting my wind back. I’m still getting used to the rhythm of the game. I didn’t play ball all summer; it’s still fun. I’m just looking forward to playing Minnesota.”
And bringing the passion with bench buddy—for now—Noah.