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Defensive skills make Bulls’ Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler best bets off bench

Bulls forwards Jimmy Butler Taj Gibsforce Clevelforward Alonzo Gee incorner second half Chicago Bulls 107-75 wover ClevelCavaliers 107-75 Thursday April

Bulls forwards Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson force Cleveland forward Alonzo Gee into a corner in the second half of the Chicago Bulls 107-75 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers 107-75 Thursday April 26, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Time

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Updated: December 25, 2012 7:25PM



In victory or defeat, the challenge facing Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau becomes more evident every day: Too many square pegs. Too many players on his active roster who would never be on his fantasy team.

Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli are niche players whose defensive liabilities make them platoon players at best in crunch time. Rookie Marquis Teague is a developmental project. With Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmonovic piling up DNPs, the Bulls have no replacement for Omer Asik. How did that happen?

What’s left is the Thibodeau Paradox: He needs to develop a deep bench to win in the playoffs. But he wants to win every single game so badly that he can’t afford to give his reserves enough playing time to develop. Thibodeau does not believe in the concept of taking your lumps — trading wins today for bigger wins tomorrow. Without Derrick Rose, he can’t afford to.

Developing a deep bench is critical for Thibodeau. But is it even possible? That’s the big question with the Bulls 8-7 in the formative stages of a season that can go in many directions. A year ago, Thibodeau turned the ‘‘Bench Mob’’ into a weapon. This season it’ll be a much more difficult trick. Last season he had to be Marshall Brodien. This year he’ll have to be Houdini.

So far, his best chance is to accentuate his strengths. Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are two players molded in Thibodeau’s image — fundamentally sound, tough all-around players who not only understand what Thibodeau wants to do defensively, but have the skills to pull it off.

Both players Did Their Job in Saturday night’s 93-88 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Gibson scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting and had eight rebounds and a blocked shot. Butler hit a key three-pointer — his first of the season — in the fourth quarter and added two assists, a steal and a blocked shot.

One contribution by Butler didn’t make the box score but has to be dear to Thibodeau’s heart. With the Bulls leading 83-79 with 2:00 left in the fourth quarter, he batted the ball from Jason Richardson as Richardson went to shoot. And when Richardson regained the ball, Butler jumped straight up to force him to miss a three-point shot without fouling him. Fundamental basketball — what a concept.

It’s that kind of play that earns fourth-quarter playing time, which is why Gibson and Butler figure so prominently. With the current state of the bench, Gibson in particular is going to take bigger steps than expected. And after a slow start, he appears ready to do it.

It’s not only a matter of the contract extension he signed before the season. It’s the added responsibility he feels.

‘‘The way I look at it, there are guys we lost from last year — I have to do more in rebounding, playing more defense,’’ Gibson said. ‘‘No matter how many minutes I get, if I get 17 or 30, always be ready and focused and take advantage of it and play to my strengths and have fun.’’

Gibson said the pressure of living up to his new contract has been a factor in his slow start. He came into Saturday night’s game averaging 6.7 points, 4.7 rebounds per game and shooting 42 percent.

‘‘I got away from having fun and was thinking too much,’’ said Gibson, who averaged 7.7 points and shot 49.5 percent last season. ‘‘But the last couple of games just having fun and getting back to the old ways of just playing. I feel healthy. I have to keep [going] with it.’’

But he’s still one guy. It’s going to take more than Gibson for the Bulls to have a bench that Thibodeau can be proud of and win with.

‘‘We understand it’s going to be a long year,’’ Gibson said. ‘‘We’re going to be in a lot of close games. We’re trying to focus on taking [advantage] of mismatches, getting our starters good looks to finish the game. Because the fourth quarter last year we were known for getting stops and holding onto a lead late and being tough with a lead. [Against the Sixers] we did that for once.’’

NOTE: Richard Hamilton is out after an MRI exam on Sunday revealed that the veteran guard has a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.



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