ORLANDOIts admittedly been an up-and-down season for Taj Gibson, whose dealt with a lingering ankle injury, his own inconsistent play and a contract extension right at the deadline, coinciding with the beginning of the campaign. For Carlos Boozer, hes almost been a forgotten man, even on a team without Derrick Rose, unless fans are vilifying him for an off night.
Wednesday evening at the Amway Center, however, the power-forward duo took center stage, as both had season-best performances in the absence of starting center Joakim Noah.
Each big man was a force on the glass, while Boozers dominant scoring throughout the contest and Gibsons defensive play and overall high activity level were major reasons the Bulls held on for a 96-94 win over the Magic.
Huge, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau gushed about Gibson, who started in place of Noahwho was sidelined with flu-like symptomsand scored a season-high 21 points, to go along with 11 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists in 45 minutes of action, during which he played center for the majority of the night, but also showcased his versatility by defending the likes of perimeter-oriented Hedo Turkoglu.
Played big minutes, battled, played the five all night, just did a great job in all areas: Blocked shots, rebounding, scoring, executing, played a great game. Hes been playing very well as of late, too. Hes starting to get into a pretty good rhythm.
Teammate Kirk Hinrich added: He was big. He came in and you know Taj, what he can do. Hes very good. He just took advantage of the opportunity. When you have guys go down, you have guys step up. When a guys capable of doing that and Taj is, hes an everyday guy. You know you can count on him to do his job.
Luol Deng, who had 23 points of his own, including two free throws to seal the deal with 4.2 seconds remaining: Guys in the NBA can play, man. Taj probably saw an opportunity tonight and played well. We know how good Taj is and we definitely miss Jo, and last game, we lost when he was sick. Hes huge for us, but Taj did a good job of stepping in and making really big plays tonight, and guarding a guy that just came off 29 rebounds. The guy still had 12 rebounds, but I thought Taj did a good job of keeping him off the boards.
That guy was second-year Magic big man Nikola Vucevic, coincidentally Gibsons former college teammate at USC. Gibson was a junior when Vucevic was a freshman, but Orlando center, the son of a European pro, credits the Brooklyn native for his adjustment to basketball in the U.S.
Taj and I are good friends, Vucevic told reporters. I was 17 when I first came to USC.
He helped me a whole lot, especially on the court, he continued. After practice, we used to play one-on-one.
Gibson remembers things a bit differently and after Vucevics monster night against the defending-champion Heat on New Years Eveeclipsing the likes of Shaquille ONeal and Dwight Howard in the Magic record bookshe was ready to face his former protg.
Thats one thing about him: Hes a great rebounder. Ever since he came into USC as a freshman, I just knew he was a great rebounder. I just tried to frustrate him in the first half, tired to take him away from the rebounding aspect. But hes a phenomenal player and Im just happy we got a win, he said. Gibson and Vucevic battled every day. Because he was the one trying to take my starting role. Thats what Coach Tim Floyd always pushed him to try to do and he always pushed me to try to defend it, and it worked out the right way because hes playing phenomenal for that team.
Guys in the NBA can play, man. Taj probably saw an opportunity tonight and played well. We know how good Taj is and we definitely miss Jo, and last game, we lost when he was sick. Hes huge for us, but Taj did a good job of stepping in and making really big plays tonight, and guarding a guy that just came off 29 rebounds. The guy still had 12 rebounds, but I thought Taj did a good job of keeping him off the boards.
Same approach as every game. Just be ready, step up, help any way I can and Thibs just told me that he was starting for Noah this morning at shootaround, and I just happened to prepare the right way, focus on who I was going to guard and try to frustrate him, and thats what I did, Gibson went on to say.
It was big because were down a lot of guys. You look at our team, weve got a lot of guys banged up. Even at the shootaround, looked aroundit was toughbut weve just got to come together as a whole, take every game one at a time. But the way we just got done in the second half, especially in the final quarter, it just speaks volumes because I thought Jameer Nelson, the Magics point guard, who scored a game-high 32 points was going to make that layup. I was just being active when he blocked the shot with 11.3 seconds remaining and just trying to talk to my point guard, and help him any way that I can.
Im starting to feel way better. My ankle is feeling much better, Ive been getting a lot of treatment on it and Im just feeling real active again. Dealing with this ankle injury, it was nagging me, but I feel a lot better today.
Thibodeau even suggested that he could use the Boozer and Gibson in tandem, as he did on occasion last season: Gibson did it played center at the end of last year and so, at the end of last year, he and Carlos played extremely well together at times and it was something I was hoping we could get to this year, and Im hopeful that can happen now.
As for Boozer, while the much-maligned player doesnt speak much about himself when talking to the media these days, preferring to deflect attention to his teammates, his game did the talking Wednesday. He scored a team-high 31 points, as well as 11 rebounds, but more importantly, he carried the Bulls in the early going and then didnt disappear as time went on, pulling the team through several stretches.
I thought Carlos was terrific. That set the tone for us. He had a huge first quarter, Thibodeau said. We were searching him out and he got going early, so I thought we recognized that. Rip recognized that, Kirk recognized that. When Kirk is running the team, thats usually what happens. He usually gets 15 to 17 shotsyou can put that in the bookand if he gets his shots, hes going to score. Hes shown that throughout his career.
Deng concurred with his coachs opinion: Booz was huge. He hit some big shots, he got us going early, we kept going to him and Rip did a good job of finding him, and Booz was making his shots.
Hinrich added: We go to Carlos all the time early. Hes one of the guys we count on to go down there and make plays for us, and he had it going tonight.
Boozer certainly benefited from Hinrichs return to the lineup, as well as Hamiltons playmakingthe veteran starting backcourt combined for 17 assistsbut that didnt account for all of his production. Still, he refused to take credit for raising his level of play, perhaps knowing that among his detractors, hes damned if he does and damned if he doesnt.
Were down, weve been short-handed all season, but this game we had without Joakim. But I thought Taj had a monster game, man, he said. We had guys step up left and right. Luol was normal with his All-Star performance and we just did a good job at the end of being resilient.
Boozer might not acknowledge what he did Wednesday, but his teammates and coaches know and within the Bulls small circle, thats all that matters. That, and like Gibson also did, embodying Thibodeaus next man up mantra by rising to the occasion with the odds against them,