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Playing time for Taj Gibson: A pleasant problem for Tom Thibodeau

Taj Gibs(22) Carlos Boozer combined for 39 points 16-for-25 shooting against. AtlantHawks Wednesday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Taj Gibson (22) and Carlos Boozer combined for 39 points on 16-for-25 shooting against. the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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TONIGHT

Pistons at Bulls

The facts: 7, CSN, 1000-AM.

Updated: May 1, 2012 8:27AM



Until Tom Thibodeau finds a way to turn Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson into one player, he’ll face the same challenge every game: how to get the most out of two players who play the same position about as differently as two players who share the same position can.

The 6-9, 266-pound Boozer is the pick-and-pop shooter who does more little things then you think, but still shouldn’t be on the court if he’s not scoring. The 6-9, 225-pound Gibson doesn’t have Boozer’s polished offensive game yet and can’t set as massive a screen, but he plays the game as if Thibodeau himself had built him from scratch: he’s a standout individual and team defender; he rebounds, blocks shots, provides precious energy and makes the most of short minutes. Gibson still might not be ready for 40 minutes a night over 82 games. But he’s never a liability on the floor.

The Boozer-Gibson combination worked as well as ever in the Bulls’ 98-77 victory over the travel-weary Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. Boozer scored 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting with nine rebounds in 30 minutes. Gibson added 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting with six rebounds in 24 minutes. And while Boozer’s production can’t be ignored, Gibson’s contribution was more valuable and bodes better for the playoffs. Simply, he took Josh Smith, one of the hottest players in the league, out of the game.

Smith, who came in averaging 26.8 points and 13.2 rebounds in his previous five games, was on his way to another big night against the Bulls in the first quarter. Defended by Joakim Noah, Smith scored nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in a 4:33 stretch to help the Hawks take leads of 13-5, 16-9 and 18-15.

But once Gibson entered the game, Smith was never the same and the tide suddenly turned in the Bulls’ favor. Smith tried bullying Gibson with a post-up move right away, only to turn and have Gibson block his shot. Smith missed his next three shots against Gibson and was totally discombobulated by the end of the half — not quite as eager to shoot as he had been and settling for outside jumpers.

By the time he scored on Gibson again, the Bulls led 83-66 in the fourth quarter. Smith finished with 19 points, but missed 11 of 15 shots after Gibson entered the game. And Gibson outscored him 11-2 in the final quarter, just as he did in the pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.

‘‘I’ll take it,’’ Gibson said, ‘‘because when a guy like that gets hot late, it’s really tough to slow him down. I just tried to come in and be aggressive, try to frustrate him, push him — anything I could to slow him down.

‘‘My teammates behind me, especially on the post-ups when he would back me down low, we got good guard support, digging, making him pick up the ball and it went in our favor.’’

Thibodeau also did not want to put the focus on Gibson vs. Smith and noted that the Hawks were playing their fifth game in six nights. But Gibson deserved at least his share of the credit.

‘‘Not only his individual defense, but his team defense,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Josh Smith is a load. He’s having an incredible season. But our second unit — Taj and Omer did a great job of anchoring the defense.’’

The Boozer-Gibson rotation bears watching in the final month of the season. Though Boozer still disappears at key times, he is healthier, more comfortable and more productive than he was last season. He has scored 20 or more points in six of his last 11 games. The Bulls need him.

But more and more, Gibson provides a dimension the Bulls can’t live without, either. His minutes are starting to creep up — 30, 27 and 24 in the last three games after averaging 19.3 in his first 46. It’s difficult to predict if Gibson will ever be as effective playing starter’s minutes as he is in his reserve role. But at the rate he’s progressing, he Bulls will want to find out for sure sooner rather than later.



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