You may think colors are a silly thing for a pro athlete to get caught up about. But Taj Gibson has always worn red. He wore red at USC for three years in college, then red for seven more with the Chicago Bulls, where he carved out a rep as one of the league’s true hard workers, an energy guy who was one of Tom Thibodeau’s favorites.
Thibs, of course, is no longer in Chicago, and neither is Gibson — traded along with Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick at the trade deadline to Oklahoma City for guards Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow and forward Joffrey Lauvergne. But the Thunder’s main color is … blue. It’s not that it really matters; Gibson, 31, has a lot at stake these last few weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs — he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and is in line for a significant payday.
But it’s part of the discomfort one can feel after a trade. Gibson not only had to adjust to a new town. For his first couple of weeks he came off the bench. But Billy Donovan decided to put Gibson in the starting lineup last week, where his low-post defense and rebounding would fit in better with Russell Westbrook’s single-mindedness at the offensive end. Off the court, he’s still looking for his comfort zone.
Me: I am always curious about what happens in the hours after someone is traded. What do you do with your stuff?
Taj Gibson: First things first. You just get the call. And immediately, you try to think of everything you wish you had did previously, throughout all the years you’ve been in a city, that you just didn’t do. And everything is just flying through your mind — ‘I’ve got to say goodbye to this person.’ But then, you’ve got like four or five hours to catch the plane. So you’re just packing stuff, you don’t know what you need —
Me: Just throwing it in a bag.
TG: Just throwing it in a bag, unfolded and everything. And the whole time, you’re still in shock. You’re like, I’m going to a new city. A brand new start. Like the first day of school; you don’t know what to expect.
“I came to a great organization. As soon as I came off the plane, Coach Billy (Donovan) and Sam (Presti), the GM, just met me, open arms. It was a great feeling.”
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Taj Gibson, on being traded
Me: You’re staying in a hotel. That’s got to be weird, because that’s not your life when you’re home.
TG: It’s a crazy feeling, ‘cause every day you wake up, I’ve come to know the maids’ first and last names, when the maids come in and make my bed and stuff. It’s a weird feeling. A lot of room service. But the people are nice.
Me: At least you to a good squad. That had to soften the blow a little at least.
TG: Yeah. Previous years I looked at how they traded certain guys off our core, where they sent them. It could have been worse. I came to a great organization. As soon as I came off the plane, Coach Billy (Donovan) and Sam (Presti), the GM, just met me, open arms. It was a great feeling. Plus, we were met by thousands of fans –
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 24, 2017
Me: I saw that.
TG: It was a great experience. I was blown away. At the same time, I was on the plane with Doug McDermott, and we were like, we’re still in shock. But then you get a warm welcoming. That’s a great thing.
Me: I know basketball is basketball, but you still have to learn what they call everything here.
TG: Oh, man. It’s difficult sometimes. ‘Cause in the games, I tend to call out plays, call out defensive sets that we ran in Chicago for a number of years. And they call it something totally different here —
Me: Blue it, black it, whatever.
TG: Blue it. And the guards sometimes get knocked off of screen and rolls, and they look at you, and you’re like, ‘aw, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.’ But Russ and the guys have been real understanding; they’re like, don’t worry about it, Taj, let’s just keep going.
Me: You saw Derrick Rose pre-injury. Any comparisons to that D-Rose and this Russell Westbrook?
TG: Both dogs when it comes to competition. Whenever you go against an elite point guard or any slight competition where it’s, like, aggressiveness, they don’t shy away. And that’s the same thing I see with Russ. He does not care. Any kind of static, he’s at you, all the way. And I love it. Even though we lost the Dallas game, and he kind of took Matt out, just that aggressiveness alone makes you go like, ‘ahhh!’ You want your leader to be like that.
Me: What do you want to bring to a team when you’re trying to fit into that team?
TG: Just trying to be a professional, first. Not step on anybody’s toes. Just try to fit in. Do what I do best, bring the energy, bring the defense. Whatever coach needs from me. But my work ethic is going to show him that I’m here to play, that I’m here to represent the team at the right way, get up in the morning, come in early, come in late nights, just show that’s the kind of person that I am, and don’t shy away from it. Like coach (Maurice) Cheeks told me today, don’t change the way you’ve been playing. Even though you’re in a new situation, just keep playing the way you’ve been playing all these years. And just fit in.
Me: Does it help that you came with McDermott and that you can kind of go through this together?
TG: Oh, man. He’s at the end of the bench with me some nights, and he’s like, ‘I’m happy that I came here with you. I don’t know how I could deal with the situation (alone).’ It’s hard, when you’ve been in a place a long time, and every day, almost every game, the few games that I’ve been playing with this team, it’s still, it feels weird. Because you’re looking at different colors. You’re on, I’m on a whole different coast. The West Coast is extremely talented. Every night, you’re getting the best of the best. And it’s great to have Doug with me.
“Even if you’re having a bad game, rough game, he’s still in the huddle. People don’t tend to see this — he’s one of the main guys that’s always encouraging, always one of the main guys tapping you, like, ‘keep your head up. It’s okay. Let’s go. We’re gonna get it.’ “
Taj Gibson, on Russell Westbrook
Me: And you’re in the middle of a playoff race, too, so everything is heightened. Do you almost pull back and say ‘I don’t want to mess this all up?’
TG: That’s the way I’ve been feeling. But the guys are like, the coaching staff and the guys are like, no, just be yourself, do what you do. But it’s tough. I was preaching all year, in the East, I was like, yeah, in the East, you have a shot, everybody’s losing. But on the West, now that I’m in the West, one or two games and you’re like in eighth place. Or you’ll be out of the race. You’ve got to bring your game every single night, and you’ve got to maintain the proper practices. Like I said before, I’m just going to stay in the gym. There’s not really much in Oklahoma City but to just stay in the gym and focus on my teammates.
Me: Any early impressions of your teammates?
TG: A lot of great young talent. A lot of great young talent. Really humble, really easy going. Not too many egos. I’ve seen a lot of teams where they have a lot of egos of different sorts. But this team, it seems a real family from top to bottom. Like I said before, great organization.
Me: Just seeing Westbrook every night now, what’s your takeaway of him?
TG: He’s a freak. I don’t know, each day I wake up and I’m like, I don’t know how he does it. Even at practice. He’s on 100, even in practice. He’s going fast, talking trash, bringing the energy. I don’t think he’s missed a game. He’s always smiling, always energetic, always giving, always caring. And in the game, he’s the same way. Even if you’re having a bad game, rough game, he’s still in the huddle. People don’t tend to see this — he’s one of the main guys that’s always encouraging, always one of the main guys tapping you, like, ‘keep your head up. It’s okay. Let’s go. We’re gonna get it.’ And that’s the kind of things I’m happy to be a part of.
Me: I know you have to dedicate yourself now to the Thunder and making them better, but you were part of something in Chicago for a while. What were your impressions of those years and those players, when you were at the top of the East and really competing?
TG: We gave it our all. We left it on the court, you know what I’m saying? You’ve got to understand, you run into guys like LeBron James every now and then, it’s going to take its toll on you. But we gave the city all we could. We fought through a lot of injuries, a lot of shorthanded nights. But we just always believed and we always tried to represent the city well. Like I said, I played my heart out for that city. And it’s always going to be good memories.
Me: So what does OKC need to do better down the stretch of the regular season to have a better chance in the playoffs?
TG: Just got to get in sync on defense. Our defense has been slacking a lot. Some nights we’re a top five team in defense, and some nights we’re just top 29 or 30. And that tends to happen on the West coast. I see it the way guys like to score the ball and move it. But if we want to go far, the defense is going to be the main thing that helps us overcome. Because you’ve got a lot of teams in the West that are really offensively gifted. But you never know. People get hurt, things may happen. But you’ve just got to stay focused on having strong principles. You’ve got to understand the identity of the team. Defense is one of the main things. We’ve got a lot of offensive firepower, especially with Russ and a lot of the young guys. But I think the defense is the main thing.
Me: Why does that happen? Why is it if you can score, you start to slack off at the defensive end?
TG: Because that’s the way guys are just brung up these days. Mostly everybody just praises offense, offense, offense. And at the end of the day, defense wins championships. Especially if you want to win a Game 7 or a Game 6 and push it to have home-court advantage, or just make the series a tough one. You have to have some tough defensive battles late. And the 3-pointers are not always going to drop. You’re going to have to have some dogs down low. And have the whole team corralled around each other.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
I'd like 2 apologize Jazz fans that were offended by my tweets. If I knew u guys had internet in Utah I would've never made those tweets.
— Vernon Maxwell (@VernonMaxwell11) March 9, 2017
Former NBA player Vernon Maxwell (@VernonMaxwell11), Thursday, 9:39 a.m., picking a fight for some reason with the Beehive State. “Mad Max” had sent out previous Tweets saying that it was fitting that his former team, the Rockets, was playing the Jazz “on International Women’s Day” and that the Jazz “have the worst uniforms in the NBA.” Utah defeated Houston by seven, FWIW.
THEY SAID IT
“Why not? Everyone deserves a second chance, and it looks like he wants to get back to playing the game he loves, and hopefully this is his destination. You don’t know how much you can get out of a guy that’s been out so long, but I’d love to see it. Why not?”
— LeBron James, on the Cavaliers potentially signing Larry Sanders as a replacement for the injured Andrew Bogut.
“It’s nothing for anybody to be concerned about. I got a boo-boo playing basketball. It is what it is, man. So I’m okay. My spirits are good.”
— Kevin Durant, meeting with reporters in Oakland last week, on how he’s coping with his knee injury, that will likely keep him out of action until at least the end of the regular season.
“I think we have 30,000 points on this team combined.”
— Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson, to the Denver Post, on Dirk Nowitzki’s becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to reach that individual scoring mark.
Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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