Taj Gibson continues to lead under pressure

It shouldn’t be that easy to overlook Taj Gibson, but it’s been the story of his seven years with the Bulls.

It’s not often you miss a powerfully built 6-9 man with a fierce determination and welcoming smile, a kid who survived the hard scrabble neighborhoods on a winding path that finally took him to the NBA as a 24-year-old rookie.

He arrived with the brilliant blooming of Derrick Rose as league MVP and the transition of Joakim Noah from iconoclast to stable hand. He quietly did his job and accepted his demotions after being named all-rookie first team, first back to the bench to accommodate Carlos Boozer, then Pau Gasol and even this season apprentice Nikola Mirotic.

He even got beaten out by former Bull Jamal Crawford for the Sixth Man award in his best season in 2013-14, playing all 82 games, averaging 13 points, 6.8 rebounds and among the league leaders in blocked shots. And playing through ankle problems so severe he’d need surgery.

Without comment, but with sturdy determination, Gibson donned his symbolic hard hat to fight with his team and teammates more than his position. Others could and have been selfish about their role, their place, what was promised them.

Perhaps Gibson burned inside, but all he ever presented to the fans and his teammates was the portrait of a man coming to work, doing his job, not asking for any special treatment, understanding as good working men and women do that when you sign your name and make your promise, when you give your word it is your bond. You’re not there to impress or broadcast your relevance; you’re there to perform and help produce the best product.

But now as the Bulls desperately keep churning in this unexpected and perhaps unwanted race to just make the playoffs, it’s Gibson as much as any who stand in the middle as perhaps the signpost to success.

Rose continues to fight off nagging injuries and is listed as questionable for Wednesday when the Bulls are in Washington for another of these crucial placement games. Pau Gasol is back in Chicago with a knee issue. Noah is out for the season after shoulder surgery. Jimmy Butler is working his way back after missing a month with a knee injury and on playing time restrictions. Mike Dunleavy should return, though perhaps weakened, after becoming ill in Toronto before Monday’s gallant 109-107 victory.

The Bulls lead the NBA in at least one category, though undesirable. They’ve had more payroll in missed games this season than any team in the league.

Meanwhile, it was late in that Monday win, the desperate Raptors charging hard at the Bulls that it was Gibson, animated and fiery in the huddle. Teammates calmed and listened.

And they went on to finish off the inspiring win, no small part thanks to Gibson’s fourth quarter.

“That’s a good team and you don’t want to waste such a good game on our end, everyone top to bottom playing hard, just suck it up, do whatever it takes,” Gibson recalled about his thoughts in that late game scene. “This was a man’s game, what men have to provide. This is where young guys have to be veterans, suck it up and do the job. That’s the way we’ve been playing the last couple of years and what I am trying to transfer to the young guys now. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but it’s up to us veteran guys to push them over the top.”

<pYes, Butler made the last game saving defensive play, and Mirotic hit the two crucial free throws.

But they don’t get there without play after play from Gibson, drafted to play center with all the injuries.

So all Gibson did was score six points in the fourth quarter, making all three of his shots, two after saving misses. The first was a tipin on an Aaron Brooks miss for a 98-87 lead with 7:14 left. Then a 14 footer on a pass from Brooks with 6:35 left for a 100-90 Bulls lead. Then there were the consecutive offensive rebounds on teammates’ misses and his own driving layup with 4:12 left for a 104-96 lead. There was seven fourth quarter rebounds when the entire Raptors starting lineup had five as Toronto ran in Bismack Biyombo, Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson to take shots at Gibson, who played all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter.

Gibson had 13 points and 10 rebounds Monday, including five of the Bulls’ eight offensive rebounds, leading both teams and with three assists, a block, a steal and just eight shots in 35 minutes, most among the starters.

“I understand we have a short window,” said Gibson about this late season playoff race. “I’m trying to push guys as hard as I can, be a motivating guy, be a leader, try to talk, try to do everything because I understand we have a lot of guys out. We have a lot of young guys looking to us, just trying to push through for them.”

It’s unexpected and perhaps appropriate that Gibson is the last man standing in this basketball happening.

He’s been the most overlooked and unrealized standup guy in the locker room for years.

The way the post game media quote dance works is reporters first seek out the coach for comment. Then the All-Stars for their eminence. Then an unlikely talent, like Doug McDermott or Mirotic, with a big scoring game. Gibson plugs away. He hasn’t had a 20-point scoring game all season. He’ll get the occasional post up play called, but his route is the offensive rebound if he wants more points.

No one sets more jarring and regular screens; there are no statistics for that in the modern analytics.

So the reporters don’t rush to Gibson.

But they often end up speaking with him.

Because like against opponents, Gibson never backs off.

The Bulls locker room is one of the better ones for media. Players aren’t cross or uncooperative. But the stars can become weary of the drill. After a loss, some might depart quickly without comment. Sometimes after a loss Noah would be too upset and even reporters would know to leave him alone. When there would be a lot of milling around and uncertainty about where to solicit a view, there always was Taj.

He’s unyieldingly cooperative, always speaks with deep emotion and understanding, enthusiastic while being sensitive. His soliloquies on the ethic of work and team have been some of the most searing and enlightening among his teammates. But, you know, he’s just Taj. Maybe eight points or six rebounds.

This season, he is averaging 8.3 points, seventh on the team, and 7.1 rebounds.

No stat, however, for the 72 screens, or 38 box outs, or the 27 passes he didn’t get so he had to chase another miss.

But now as so many fall around him like soldiers marching on a battle field, Gibson is standing as a leading figure even with a bothersome hamstring. He’s not scoring the most and won’t make the crucial play for the TV highlights. He’s making the plays so the others can be there when the cameras are brightest.

Gibson may be overlooked outside the huddle, but not inside.

“Like I said before, we can’t worry about what people are going to think. At the end of the day, everyone has to just go out and play,” said Gibson. “It’s not about what the name on the back of your jersey says. We have to go out and play 110 percent and if at the end of the night you know you gave it your all, you can walk away with your head up.”

Can’t ask for more than that.