By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
CHICAGO – Joakim Noah, who plays at a full-on froth for the Chicago Bulls, works his way to that boiling point with a very personal, specific routine of physical and mental preparation that has him literally bouncing on the court by tipoff.
So he marvels at the on/off switch his friend and teammate Taj Gibson has, coming in cold off the Bulls bench and then – wham! – impacting the game in almost no time at all.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Noah said, eyes widening as he leaned back in his chair the other night. “He barely … I mean, I’ve seen Taj barely warm up and then he’s just dunking all over the place. It’s crazy. He’s very lucky to have that. Some people have that unbelievable gift.
“He’ll do things – he’ll lift weights before the game and get prepared, but it’s a lot easier for him than it is for me, I’ll tell you that.”
It’s a legitimate skill, catching up to a game already five, eight, 12 minutes old, stepping in among players already lathered and loose, when you’ve been sitting on the side in warm-up clothes. It’s one of the traits that has thrust Gibson into late-season conversations for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
Gibson’s individual development on the offensive end might argue for Most Improved consideration instead, or as well. But it has been the 6-foot-9 power forward’s work in reserve – along with Noah’s ascension and D.J. Augustin‘s makeover – that has helped pushed Chicago beyond the doldrums of the Derrick Rose re-injury and Luol Deng trade.
And in Gibson’s case, it comes from his ability to hit the game balling.
“Oh man, I felt that today,” Gibson said after boosting the Bulls against Philadephia on Saturday with 16 points and 10 rebounds in not quite 29 minutes. “It’s rough. Some days he plays me at the five-minute mark, some days I have to wait till the second quarter.”
This time, Gibson entered with three minutes left in the first and got busy with a rebound and a block. Later, as has been coach Tom Thibodeau‘s practice for a long time, he played the entire fourth quarter, scoring eight points, grabbing three boards and getting another block.
Gibson finishes on most nights because his offense has improved and his defensive versatility makes him invaluable on pick-and-rolls. But starting quickly is what matters most at the game’s front end.
“Luckily I just know my routine,” Gibson said. ” keep a good rhythm going on the sideline. I’m jumping up, I’m cheering, I’m directing, I’m doing a lot of stuff to try to help my teammates from the bench.”
He sits on hot packs, Gibson said, and stretches with every timeout while waiting his turn.
“I just stay active, stay mobile, ’cause you can get real stiff waiting,” said the fifth-year product of USC and Brooklyn, N.Y. “When I get in there, the first look I take, I just take it to get a rhythm right away. That’s what Derrick told me – I’ve got good people giving me good advice. And it works out.”
How well? Gibson has scored in double figures in 26 of his last 31 games, averaging 15.1 points on 47.3 percent shooting, with 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.32 blocks. The Bulls are 20-11 record in that time.
He is averaging career highs in points (13.2, vs. 9.0 in 2009-10), assists (1.3) and minutes (28.7). He has reset his career scoring high to 26 and hit it three times, has scored 20 points or more in 11 games and has 13 double-doubles.
He’s the poster guy for that old coach’s saying: “It doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.” Gibson averages 10.1 of his minutes in the fourth quarter. He started 70 games as a rookie in 2009-10 – Chicago’s Tyrus Thomas era hadn’t worked out so well – but has been a reserve in 278 of 310 games since Thibodeau was hired and Carlos Boozer signed in the summer of 2010.
Their early work together earned Gibson a four-year, $33 million contract extension in October 2012. His recent work has earned Thibodeau’s praise and endorsement for that SMOY honor.
“The biggest thing for him is what he’s contributed to us winning,” the Bulls coach said. “I hate to lock into individual awards. I think players are recognized when the team has success. … The things he does for our team are all team-oriented.
“Plays great defense. Challenges shots. Guards everybody. Runs the floor hard. Sets great screens. Does his job. Offensively, gets deep post position. Gets a quality shot up. When a second guy comes, he makes the play. He’s gotten comfortable in pick-and-roll situations.”
You want advanced stats? When Gibson has been on the court, the Bulls’ offensive and defensive ratings have been 103.7 and 100.7 respectively. When he sits, those numbers droop to 99.9 and 101.3.
Gibson’s offense, meanwhile, has benefited from equal parts confidence and patience. He saw what defenses were yielding to him, video of last spring’s playoffs and such, and has begun to consistently take those shots.
The Sixth Man award typically favors guards and wing players, the guys who bring instant offense. Eight of the past nine winners, with the exception of Lamar Odom in 2011, have fit that that description. And the top candidates this year – Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris, possible repeat winners in Jamal Crawford or Manu Ginobili – all tend to help their teams most at one end.
Still, Gibson, who gives the Bulls both quickie offense and defense, lights up at the idea of the recognition. There’s that on/off switch again.
“It’d mean a lot,” he said. “Coming from a guy that played on the Bench Mob my entire career since we got Carlos, so many different guys coming and going. Just being able to come in, play defense, go from a guy that’s just focused on defense and now my teammates are looking for me on offense, it’s just great. … The coaching staff believing in me, it would be a dream come true.”