PHILADELPHIA– Before his ankle sprain in Game 5, Chicago’s Taj Gibson was a force of nature against the Philadelphia 76ers. He had four blocked shots in his first 12 minutes of action and chipped in four points and six rebounds.
Gibson AAS – that is, After his Ankle Sprain, as opposed to Before Ankle Sprain – was a shell of himself, without the lift, quickness, lateral movement or explosiveness that made him so valuable for most of the first three quarters that night and on many others. He was slower to the ball, could be ignored by the Sixers’ defense and discouraged none of their shooters, though the Bulls did hang on for their 77-69 victory.
With 48 hours to heal or at least improve for a role in Game 6 Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV) at Wells Fargo Center, Gibson was sounding like his best old self. “I’m gonna play,” he told reporters before Chicago’s morning shootaround. “The doctors said I can’t do any more harm to it. It’s just how much pain I can take. Just go out there and run.”
Gibson was expected to participate in both the shootaround and the game. The same wasn’t true of center Joakim Noah, whose sprained ankle in Game 3 was more severe and sidelined him completely from Games 4 and 5. Noah still was being called a “game-time decision” by coach Tom Thibodeau, but that’s standard stuff for Thibodeau, who holds his cards close.
Gibson’s value to the Bulls might be boundless but it isn’t incalculable. According to NBA.com’s advance stats, his net rating of 15.1 when he was on the floor was tops among the Bulls’ rotation players. Defensively, Chicago gave up 88.6 points for every 100 possessions with Gibson active as a shot-contester, help defender and rebounder, compared to 99.8 when Gibson was sitting. And his stats compare favorably to teammate Carlos Boozer, the man Gibson most often replaced; Boozer had a net rating of 5.8 when on the court and the Bulls give up 98.9 points for every 100 defensive possessions.
The key for much of Game 5, and for whatever good comes out of the Bulls’ efforts in Game 6, figures to be Gibson’s and Boozer’s ability to play together. With Noah out and with Omer Asik prone to fatigue and foul trouble, that frontcourt tandem likely will log heavy minutes — Gibson’s ankle willing.
“Carlos and Taj have played well all season together,” said Thibodeau, who considers Gibson capable of guarding all five positions when healthy. “When Carlos has been out, he’s started and handled that extremely well. I think he’s gotten a lot more comfortable playing the [center spot]. I think he and Carlos complement each other extremely well. I also like what Omer has done, which has helped set the tone for the defense.”
Philadelphia is shooting 40.9 percent in the series, including 35.1 percent in the past three games. The Sixers’ edge has come in fast break points (85-58) and free throws made (101-56). Chicago would like to even up the trips to the line (134 attempts to its 90) and hopes familiarity can bog things down on the Sixers’ transition game.
“I think it’s harder and harder to get easy baskets,” Thibodeau said about playoff series in general. “As a series goes on … because of floor balance, if you’re not turning the ball over and you have three defenders back, it’s very difficult to get your true fast breaks. You’re forcing a team more into their secondary options.”