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Taj Gibson steals show in Bulls’ victory against Magic

Orlando Magic's Hedo Turkoglu (15) Turkey grabs rebound away from Chicago Bulls' Taj Gibsduring second half an NBA basketball game

Orlando Magic's Hedo Turkoglu (15), of Turkey, grabs a rebound away from Chicago Bulls' Taj Gibson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in Orlando, Fla. Chicago won 96-94. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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Updated: January 3, 2013 10:38AM

ORLANDO, Fla. — Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t hand out praise easily. So for Taj Gibson to earn the description ‘‘huge’’ four times for his play in the Bulls’ 96-94 victory Wednesday against the Orlando Magic said something.

Considering how thin the Bulls were up front, ‘‘huge’’ still might have been an understatement for Gibson’s 21-point, 11-rebound effort in place of ailing center Joakim Noah.

Coming off three losses in their last four games, including one Monday to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, the Bulls faced a challenge against the Magic without Noah, who was out with flulike symptoms. Carlos
Boozer scored a season-high 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but it was Gibson who stole the show.

‘‘Huge, huge, huge, huge,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Played big minutes, battled, played [center] all night, did just a great job in all areas — blocked shots, rebounding, scoring, executing. He’s been playing very well as of late, too, so he’s starting to get into a pretty good rhythm.’’

What made the performance even better was that Gibson, who isn’t a natural center, was given the task of guarding Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who was coming off a franchise-best 29 rebounds Monday. Vucevic had 20 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls.

Coincidentally, Vucevic was a freshman at USC during Gibson’s last season with the Trojans, so it wasn’t the first time the two had squared off against each other.

‘‘Every day,’’ Gibson said when he was asked how often he had battled with Vucevic in college. ‘‘He was the one trying to take my starting role.

‘‘That’s the one thing about him when he came to USC as a freshman: He was always a great
rebounder. I just tried to frustrate him the first half, take him away from the rebounding aspect.’’

Besides his scoring and rebounding, Gibson also gave Thibodeau four blocked shots and three assists in just less than 45 minutes. Basically, his training wheels at center were kicked off of him.

‘‘He did it at the end of last year,’’ Thibodeau said of Gibson’s evolution from power forward to center. ‘‘At the end of last year, he and Carlos played extremely well at times, and it was something I was hoping we could get to again this year. I’m hopeful that can happen now.’’

Noah is expected back Friday against the Miami Heat, but at least Thibodeau has a better feeling about the Bulls’ depth in the middle.

What he still isn’t feeling good about is how the Bulls are finishing games. They watched an 18-point lead in the third quarter slip to two, thanks to Magic guard Jameer Nelson scoring 32 points. Nelson had a chance to give the Magic the lead with six seconds left, but Kirk Hinrich stayed draped all over him and forced him into a bad shot.

‘‘He got rolling,’’ Hinrich said of Nelson. ‘‘I just didn’t want him to get a three off. I got up on him . . . and [he] just missed the shot.’’

A miss the Bulls needed.

‘‘You’ve got to have toughness,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘You’ve got to win games different ways.’’

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