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Taj Gibson: Bulls will reach playoffs but must learn how to close games

Taj Gibssays even though Bulls are 12-18 they’ll make playoffs because Eastern Conference is so bad. | Getty Images

Taj Gibson says even though the Bulls are 12-18, they’ll make the playoffs because the Eastern Conference is so bad. | Getty Images

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The facts: 7 p.m., CSN+, 1000-AM.

Updated: January 1, 2014 9:45PM

Pulling down rebounds has never been a problem for reserve big man Taj Gibson.

Pulling punches? That always has been the stumbling block.

So of course he was going to all but guarantee a playoff spot for the Bulls on the same night they laid an egg against the Raptors.

Why the bravado?

“Because the East is terrible, man, look at it,’’ Gibson said. “Then look at what we’ve done against the two top teams [Pacers and Heat]in the East. We’ve played them as tough as anyone, so we feel like there’s no doubt we can get into the playoffs.

“Once we get there, I mean, we are no strangers to the playoffs. We know how to win games on that stage, in hostile environments. We just have to figure things out now in this regular season.’’

Therein lies the problem.

The Eastern Conference is terrible. But the Bulls are right there in that mix of bad at 12-18. And while they have split their first two games with the Pacers and their first two against the Heat, sitting at 10-16 against everyone else doesn’t exactly scream threat in the playoffs.

Not when they can’t keep a consistent lineup and, more important, not when they can’t find a way to close out games.

Whether it’s one player or as a unit, the Bulls are still searching for that fourth-quarter knockout punch.

Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli — key clutch players last season — aren’t here anymore. And Derrick Rose is once again lost for the season.

That basically leaves a help- wanted sign: Closer. Experience needed.

“You can’t really say that it’s a matter of one guy closing out games for us,’’ Gibson said. “It’s about our team figuring it out, figuring out how to get stops when it counts. It’s about stopping them and keeping our momentum going, and we haven’t been able to do that consistently.

“It’s about counting on the guy next to you, counting on the guys that are out there with you. That’s what we have to improve on and look forward to.’’

They had it down Monday in Memphis. With the Grizzlies making a fourth-quarter surge, D.J. Augustin nailed a three-pointer with 8:49 left, made two free throws at the 7:13 mark, then hit another clutch three-pointer with 5:52 left.

Kirk Hinrich made a big three-pointer with 3:34 left to increase the Bulls’ lead back to 10, but it came off an Augustin assist because of the attention he drew.

Augustin has been a huge pickup, but if he’s the one who has to play late-game savior for the Bulls, especially with All-Stars Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng on the roster, well, Gibson’s playoff prediction likely will fall short.

“We have to figure out how to win games right now,’’ Gibson said. “I know what we can do in the playoffs, but the problem is now. We can have Luol back and healthy, everyone, but if we can’t figure out how to win games, it’s not going to do us any good.

“We will. That, I’m confident of.’’


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